The Baby Bombers [2016 Series Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the 2016 trade deadline one of the most important periods in recent Yankees’ history. You probably have to go all the way back to the 2008-09 offseason for the last time the club made moves that so greatly impacted the future of the organization. The Yankees sold productive veterans at the deadline and not only added quality prospects, but they also opened big league playing time for young players.

Aside from Gary Sanchez, who had more impact than any other AL rookie position player in 2016, the two youngsters who most benefited from that suddenly available playing time were Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. The Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, released Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Mark Teixeira‘s playing time, which created a path for Austin and Judge to play nearly everyday.

History on Day One

Austin and Judge both made their MLB debuts on the same day. August 13th, the day after A-Rod was released. They batted back-to-back in the starting lineup too. Austin hit seventh as the first baseman and Judge hit eighth as the right fielder. Sanchez was batting sixth as the DH. It was a hell of an afternoon.

In their first big league at-bats, Austin and Judge made history by becoming the first set of teammates to hit their first career home runs in their big league debuts in the same game. And they did it back-to-back. And in their first at-bats. Like I said, it was a hell of an afternoon.

Hilariously, Austin’s home run was one of New York’s shortest of the season while Judge’s was one of the longest. The Yankees went young in the second half this season and were rewarded immediately. Sanchez was a force for two months, and Austin and Judge did something historic in their debuts. That sure was fun, wasn’t it? The back-to-back jacks were one of the best moments of the season.

Clutch Homers & Sporadic Playing Time

This was an incredibly important season for Austin. Last year the 25-year-old hit .246/.320/.361 (96 wRC+) with nine home runs in the minors and was so bad he had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. When September rolled around, the Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster to create space for someone else. He went unclaimed on waivers, then went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Ouch.

“You never want to go backward in this game but I think it was a great learning experience for me,” said Austin back in June. “This game humbled me very fast and I found out the hard way. I’m going to try and not let anything like that happen again and continue to work hard and go from there.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Greg Bird went down with shoulder surgery in February, and during Spring Training, Brian Cashman said Austin wasn’t even on the team’s radar as a potential first base solution. He was that far down the depth chart. Austin didn’t get an invite to big league Spring Training either. If he was going to get back on the 40-man roster and to the big leagues, he was going to have to earn it. The Yankees didn’t give him much of a look in camp.

When the regular season started, Austin returned to Double-A Trenton — this was the fifth straight year he’d spent time with the Thunder — and you know what? He didn’t exactly destroy the competition. Austin hit .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) with four homers in 50 games at Double-A. The Yankees only bumped him up to Triple-A because they called Chris Parmelee to the Bronx, and the RailRiders needed a first baseman.

Austin made the most of the opportunity. His game took off once he arrived in Triple-A in early-June. Austin hit .323/.415/.637 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers in 57 games with Scranton before called up to the Yankees in early-August. He hadn’t had that much success in the minors, even in a short stint, since his breakout 2012 season way back when. Austin forced the issue, exactly has the Yankees hoped. He made them take notice.

Things quickly went downhill for Austin following his debut home run. He fell into an ugly 5-for-36 (.139) slump with 13 strikeouts after that, which landed him on the bench for long stretches of time. The Yankees managed to climb back into the race in August and Teixeira simply gave the team a better chance to win at the time, so he played. Austin looked overmatched.

Joe Girardi gave Austin another look in early-September, and he wound up hitting two of the most important home runs of the season. On September 6th, Austin cracked a go-ahead two-run home run against noted ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez. It was his birthday too. Quite a way to turn 25, eh?

Two days later, Austin hit his third big league home run, this one a walk-off blast against the Rays. So, to recap, his first homer was part of the first set of back-to-back homers by rookies in their MLB debut, his second was a birthday blast, and his third was a walk-off. That’s a hell of a thing.

Austin hit two more home runs later in the month and finished his first big league stint with a respectable .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) batting line and five home runs in 90 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs gave the Yankees the lead. The other tied the game. All five were hit to right field in Yankee Stadium too. Austin showed off some serious opposite field power. Check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Tyler Austin spray chart

That’s a pretty interesting exit velocity spray chart. (Yes, I broke out an exit velocity spray chart.) Austin hit all of his home runs the other way, but he also pulled the ball with authority as well. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter and he wasn’t a pure opposite field guy either. Austin sprayed the ball all around. I don’t think that tells us much of anything in a 90-plate appearance sample, but it’s cool to see.

After being drafted as a catcher and dabbling at third base in the low minors, Austin is a pure first baseman at this point of his career. A first baseman who can play right field in an emergency situation. The Yankees ran him out there in right a few times late in the season and it was not pretty. I don’t recommend doing it often. Austin isn’t Teixeira at first base but he’s solid defensively. Makes all the plays he should make. He’s in the lineup for his bat though, not his glove.

With Teixeira retired, the Yankees now have a great big opening at first base, and Austin figures to come to Spring Training with a chance to win the job. It’ll be him and Bird, and you know what? The job could very easily go to both of them next season. I see them platooning and splitting time at first base and DH. A year ago Austin was so far off the radar that no team claimed him off waivers. The strong 2016 season and impressive display of opposite field pop put him in position to have a role with the Yankees doing forward.

The Adjustment Period

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season started, Judge was in a very different yet similar place as Austin. Austin had played his way out of the picture while Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect, someone who was going to get every opportunity to succeed. That was the big difference between the two. Austin and Judge were also similar in that they were going to have to prove themselves before getting a big league opportunity. Neither would be handed anything.

Judge, now 24, reached Triple-A in the second half last season and struggled, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games. Experienced pitchers picked apart the inevitable swing holes that come with being 6-foot-7. Judge spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working the team’s minor league hitting coordinators, and he reworked his hitting mechanics quite a bit. Here’s a GIF I’ve posted a few times now:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016That’s Spring Training 2015 on the left and Spring Training 2016 on the right. Judge added a bigger leg kick over the winter, and he also dropped his hands a bit. In fact, by time he arrived in New York, his hands were even lower. Judge kept dropping them and dropping them until he found a comfortable spot that more easily allowed him to get the bat into the hitting zone.

Judge started the Triple-A season fairly slowly, slow enough that some folks were saying his development had stalled out. He was sitting on a .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) batting line with seven home runs and a 26.2% strikeout rate through his first 50 games. That included an ugly 10-for-72 (.139) slump with 24 strikeouts. Judge looked overmatched, at least based on the box score, and there was reason to be worried.

That all changed pretty quickly. Following those tough 50 games, Judge went on an insane tear and hit .328/.463/.630 (216 wRC+) with nine home runs in his next 33 games. He dropped his strikeout rate to 18.8% and drew nearly as many walks (17.4%). That hot streak raised his season batting line to .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+). Unfortunately, on July 8th, Judge suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury sent him to the DL for a little less than a month.

Judge returned in early-August, went 12-for-34 (.353) with three home runs in ten games with the RailRiders, then was called up to the Yankees. He not only hit a home run in his first big league at-bat, he also went deep the following day too. Judge hit home runs in back-to-back games to start his big league career. He had two hits in his third game as well.

Like Austin, Judge fell into a slump after his big debut, going 4-for-36 (.111) with 20 (!) strikeouts in his next eleven games after the hot start. Girardi gave Judge a few days off here and there, but, generally speaking, he was in the lineup everyday. The Yankees were willing to live with the growing pains even while the team scratched their way closer to a wildcard spot.

Judge’s season came to a premature end on September 13th, when he tweaked his oblique taking a swing. Obliques are tricky. They’re very easy to re-injury if they’re not allowed to heal properly. The Yankees shut Judge down for the season and the good news is he’s already healthy and reportedly again working in Tampa with the team’s hitting instructors.

All told, Judge hit .270/.366/.489 (147 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 43 Triple-A games — that was his lowest strikeout rate since he was in Low-A two years ago (21.2%) — and .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) with three home runs and a 44.2% strikeout rate in 27 big league games. The good news: his hard contact rate was an insane 48.8%. (His soft contact rate was 9.3%!) Only Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity.

Now, the bad news: Judge’s contact rate was only 59.7%. Only one of the 452 players to bat at least 90 times this season had a lower contact rate. It was Madison Bumgarner at 59.2%. So yeah. (Austin had the third lowest contact rate at 62.0%, by the way.) Here are the pitch locations of Judge’s swing and misses, via Baseball Savant:

Aaron Judge whiffs

Many of the empty swings came on pitches that move and were on the outer half or out of the zone entirely. Sliders, curveballs, that sort of thing. Not all of them though. Judge’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was only 74.3%, which ranked 447th among those 452 batters with at least 90 plate appearances. Contact was a clear issue during Judge’s relatively brief big league stint. No doubt about it.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Judge has a history of starting slow each time he’s promoted before making the adjustment and getting on track. He did it at Double-A and he did it at Triple-A. Now he has to do it in MLB. The good news is Judge has made those adjustments in the past. It’s easy to stereotype this guy as a big dumb masher who grips it and rips it, but that’s not the case. His hit tool is solid. “He’s got more feel to hit than one would expect for a man his size,” said Baseball America’s scouting report before the season.

Strikeouts are always going to be part of Judge’s game. You can only shorten your swing so much when you’re 6-foot-7. The hope is Judge will be able to trim his strikeout rate down into the 23.0% range down the road while tapping into his obvious power potential. Judge is also a sneaky good athlete for his size too. He’s not a liability in right field at all. Heck, he robbed a home run without even jumping. His arm is a rocket as well. The guy flicked his wrist and the ball carried from the warning track to second base.

The right field job is Judge’s for the taking. The Yankees want him to take it and run with it in Spring Training, and never look back. They’re also not going to hand him the job either. They have other outfielders. Cashman said Judge will have to earn his roster spot like everyone else and I believe it. A poor, strikeout heavy spring could land him back in Triple-A. Either way, Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future, and hopefully the future starts on Opening Day 2017.

Cubs claim Conor Mullee off waivers from Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I missed this yesterday, but before they won the damn World Series, the Cubs claimed right-hander Conor Mullee off waivers from the Yankees, the team announced. Apparently the Yankees outrighted Mullee at some point earlier this week as part of their 40-man roster cleanup process.

Mullee, 28, made his big league debut this past season after spending parts of seven seasons in the minors. The Yankees selected him out of St. Peter’s in Jersey City in the 24th round of the 2010 draft, but Mullee was limited to only 27 total innings from 2010-13 due to a series of elbow injuries that required surgery, including Tommy John surgery and a pair of avulsion fractures.

The Yankees called Mullee up in mid-May when a fresh bullpen arm was needed, and in three games with the Yankees, he allowed one run on no hits and four walks in three innings. Can’t believe the Yankees cut the guy who literally allowed zero hits in the big leagues, you guys. Mullee’s season ended in August because he needed another elbow surgery, this one to treat a nerve issue.

With Mullee gone and both Mark Teixeira and Billy Butler becoming free agents this morning, the Yankees now have seven open 40-man roster spots. They also have five players who need to be activated off the 60-day DL by next Monday (Nathan Eovaldi, Chad Green, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Dustin Ackley), plus Kyle Higashioka will be added to the 40-man as well. Here’s our offseason calendar.

The 2016-17 Offseason Calendar

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Chicago Cubs took home their first World Series championship since 1908 with a thrilling 8-7 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven. The game went ten innings. It was definitely one of the best games I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that’s a stretch. That was an all-timer.

Anyway, now that the World Series and the 2016 baseball season are over, the offseason will officially get underway. There are a ton of important dates and deadlines coming up these next few weeks, plus some not so important ones as well. Here is the offseason calendar and what each of these dates means for the Yankees.

Today, November 3rd: Free Agency Begins, Sorta
As of 9am ET this morning, eligible players became free agents. They used to make players file for free agency, which was a total waste of time, but now it happens automatically. The Yankees only have two free agents this year: Mark Teixeira and Billy Butler. Totally forgot Butler was on the team, to be honest. Teixeira is retiring and I see no reason to bring Butler back. Carlos Beltran, Ivan Nova, and Aroldis Chapman, the team’s other impending free agents, were traded at the deadline.

Saturday, November 5th: Option Decisions Due
In most cases, options decisions are due on the third day following the end of the World Series. A few contracts around the league specify a different date — usually much earlier than the normal deadline, not later — but not many. CC Sabathia‘s vesting option already vested, so the Yankees don’t have any option decisions this offseason. No club options, player options, opt-outs, nothing. Boring!

Monday, November 7th: Qualifying Offers, MiLB Free Agents, 60-Day DL, Awards
Next Monday will be a busy day. Lots happening. First of all, it’s the deadline for teams to tender their eligible free agents the qualifying offer, which is worth $17.2M this offseason. The Yankees don’t have any qualifying offer candidates. Butler’s not eligible because he wasn’t with the team all season, and Teixeira is retiring. Even if he intended to keep playing, the Yankees still wouldn’t make Teixeira the qualifying offer based on his play in 2017.

Also on this date, eligible players become minor league free agents. There will be many. A couple hundred around the league. Brian Cashman has already said the Yankees will added catcher Kyle Higashioka to the 40-man roster, preventing him from hitting the open market. Higashioka, Cito Culver, Gabe Encinas, and Evan Rutckyj are the most notable Yankees’ farmhands up for minor league free agency this winter. They’re far from the only ones though.

Next, all players on the 60-day DL must be activated by next Monday. The Yankees have six players on the 60-day DL: Nathan Eovaldi, Chad Green, Conor Mullee, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, and Dustin Ackley. The team currently has six open 40-man roster spots, counting the Teixeira and Butler departures, so they have just enough room to activate the 60-day DL guys and add Higashioka.

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
Sanchez. (Rich Gagnon/Getty)

And finally, MLB and the BBWAA will announce three finalists in each league for each of the four major awards. That is Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player. The announcements will be made during a live MLB Network broadcast. The Yankees actually have some awards candidates this year. Masahiro Tanaka should receive some Cy Young love, and Gary Sanchez is a serious candidate for Rookie of the Year, if not the favorite. MLB and the BBWAA already know who’s won each award. The finalists just create hype.

November 7th to 10th: GM Meetings In Scottsdale
The GM Meetings are intended to handle various off-the-field matters around the league, but in recent years we’ve begun seeing more and more deals struck during these four days. Last year the Yankees completed the Aaron HicksJohn Ryan Murphy trade at the GM Meetings, for example. I guess when you stick all 30 GMs in one place, deals are inevitable.

November 8th: The Start Of Free Agency, Gold Gloves Announced
Next Tuesday marks the beginning of true free agency. The five-day exclusive negotiating period ends at 12:01am ET Tuesday morning, allowing free agents to negotiate and sign with any team. This is not the NFL, NBA, or NHL though. There’s no salary cap, so players don’t rush to sign on Day One of free agency to make sure they don’t get left out in the cold when no one has cap space left. Like the regular season, MLB free agency is a marathon, not a sprint.

Also, the 2016 Gold Glove award winners will be announced during a live broadcast on ESPN next Tuesday. The Yankees have one Gold Glove finalist: Brett Gardner. He’s up against Alex Gordon and Colby Rasmus for the left field award in the AL. This is Gardner’s third time as a Gold Glove finalist. He’s yet to win.

November 10th: Silver Sluggers Announced
Uh, yay?

November 14th: Qualifying Offer Decisions Due
Players have one week to accept or reject the qualifying offer. For the first time last year, a few players actually accepted the offer. Rasmus, Matt Wieters, and Brett Anderson all took it rather than test free agency. I’m guessing we’ll see more players accept going forward now that someone took the plunge. Players who reject the qualifying offer will be tied to draft pick compensation as free agents. The Yankees won’t make any qualifying offers this winter, but on this date we’ll see who they’d have to give up a draft pick to sign.

November 14th to 17th: Awards Winners Announced
Rookies of the Year on Monday, Managers of the Year on Tuesday, Cy Youngs on Wednesday, and MVPs on Thursday. Monday and Wednesday are the big days for the Yankees. I don’t think Tanaka will win the Cy Young, but he should get a healthy amount of votes. Sanchez has a real chance to win Rookie of the Year though, despite not being called up for good until August. He was that good.

November 18th: Deadline To Protect Eligible Players From Rule 5 Draft
Usually the deadline is on the 20th, but because that falls on a Sunday this year, they moved it up to the 18th. Anyway, the Yankees have a lot of quality prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason. Such is life when you have a deep farm system. The Yankees actually got a head start on their Rule 5 Draft protection by calling up Aaron Judge and Ben Heller during the season.

Among the prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this year are Jorge Mateo, Miguel Andujar, Luis Torrens, Dietrich Enns, Tyler Webb, Gio Gallegos, Rashad Crawford, and Domingo Acevedo. Mateo is lock to be protected and both Andujar and Acevedo are safe bets as well. Everyone else is pretty much up in the air. I think the Yankees will try to find 40-man roster room for Enns and Webb, but we’ll see.

Mateo. (Presswire)
Mateo. (Presswire)

As a reminder, teams must add eligible players to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, so the Yankees will have to make room for these guys. Players selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain on their new team’s active 25-man big league roster all season, or pass through waivers and be offered back to their former team. Odubel Herrera and Hector Rondon are by far the biggest Rule 5 Draft success stories over the last five years.

December 1st: Collective Bargaining Agreement Expires
Both MLB and the MLBPA are reportedly optimistic about getting a new CBA finalized this month, so that’s good. Free agent draft pick compensation is said to be one of the remaining major issues. There’s also talk the current rules may remain in place this offseason before a new system takes effect next offseason. Either way, this is a significant date. A lot can change on December 1st, so, from here on out, every date listed in tentative. The new CBA could change things.

December 2nd: Non-Tender Deadline
A whole new batch of free agents will hit the market this day. December 2nd is the deadline for teams to tender their pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players contracts for the 2017 season. Anyone who doesn’t receive an offer becomes a free agent.

The Yankees have two obvious non-tender candidates this offseason: Eovaldi and Ackley. Both suffered major injuries this year — Eovaldi will miss the entire 2017 season as well — and there’s no reason to keep them around at seven-figure salaries. I suppose there’s a chance both will be released prior to the non-tender deadline to clear 40-man roster space for the Rule 5 Draft guys.

December 5th to 8th: Winter Meetings In National Harbor, Maryland
MLB is straying from their usual Winter Meetings sites this year and holding them outside Washington, DC, so that’s cool. They’ll be at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center a few miles south of the capitol. Neat. Anyway, the Winter Meetings are, by far, the busiest four days of the offseason. There are plenty of big trades and free agent signings during this week. Last year the Yankees made the Starlin Castro and Justin Wilson trades at the Winter Meetings. It will be a surprise if the Yankees don’t do something during these four days.

December 8th: Rule 5 Draft
The Winter Meetings conclude with the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday morning. Everyone heads home after that. There’s a pretty good chance the Yankees will lose someone in the Rule 5 Draft given their eligible players — Gallegos seems like a safe bet to get popped, for example — but I would bet against them making a pick simply because the 40-man roster figures to be full. You can’t make any picks if your roster is full. The Yankees haven’t made a selection in the Rule 5 Draft since taking Cesar Cabral and Brad Meyers in 2011. (Cabral was actually picked by the Royals and traded immediately to the Yankees in a prearranged deal.)

January 18th: 2017 Hall Of Fame Class Announced
Next summer’s Hall of Fame induction class has a chance to be huge. Jeff Bagwell (71.6%), Tim Raines (69.8%), and Trevor Hoffman (67.3%) are all on the ballot again after coming very close to being voted in last year. This is Raines’ last year on the ballot, so he should get a nice bump in his final year of eligibility. Players need to receive 75% of the vote for induction, and historically, when someone gets as close as Bagwell did last year, they get voted in the next year.

The class of newcomers to the ballot includes one prominent former Yankee: Jorge Posada. He’s the first member of the (groan) Core Four to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. Switch-hitting catchers who put up a .273/.374/.474 (123 wRC+) batting line with 275 homers and +40 WAR and five rings are Hall of Fame worthy to me, but what do I know. Other newcomers to the ballot include Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Vlad Guerrero. Hot damn. Here’s the entire 2017 Hall of Fame ballot.

Count 'em. (Getty)
Count ’em. (Getty)

Mid-January: Deadline To Submit Salary Arbitration Filing Figures
The exact date for arbitration-eligible players to a) file for salary arbitration (a formality), and b) exchange salary figures with the team have not yet been set, probably because the new CBA is not in place. These two dates are usually in mid-January and they’re close together. Like two or three days apart. Filing for arbitration is a nothing deadline. Everyone does it. No idea why the deadline still exists to be honest, but it does.

On filing figure day, the player and the team submit their proposed salaries to the arbitration panel. The player files what he believes he deserves and the team counters with what they feel the player deserves. Most arbitration-eligible players sign before this deadline. The Yankees signed all of their players before the filing deadline every year from 2008-15 before exchanging figures with Chapman, Eovaldi, Nova, and Didi Gregorius last year. That was a bit of a surprise.

Early-to-Mid-February: Salary Arbitration Hearings
Arbitration hearings are held throughout February, usually before Spring Training but some can bleed into the start of camp. The hearing itself can be ugly. The player explains why he deserves the salary he filed while the team explains why he deserves the salary they filed. The club details the player’s shortcomings. It’s not the most comfortable experience. The three-person arbitration panel then awards the player one of the two filing figures. Nothing in between.

It’s important to note the two sides can still agree to a contract of any size at any point prior to an arbitration hearing, even after filing salary figures. The Yankees exchanged figures with Chapman, Eovaldi, Gregorius, and Nova last offseason, but they managed to sign all four before going to a hearing. The Yankees haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang way back during the 2007-08 offseason. As always, if the Yankees do go to a hearing this year, I will be very surprised. It’s not their style.

Mid-February: Spring Training Begins!
Earlier this week the Yankees announced they will play their first Grapefruit League game on February 24th, against the Phillies. The rest of the Spring Training schedule, including reporting dates, will be announced next week. In previous years the Yankees have had their pitchers and catchers report 12-13 days prior to the first Grapefruit League game, which indicates camp will open somewhere around February 12th or 13th next year. Probably the 13th since that’s a Monday, but we’ll find out for sure next week.

March 7th to 22nd: World Baseball Classic
The 2017 edition of the WBC begins on March 7th with pool play in Seoul and Tokyo, and it ends on March 22nd with the Championship Game in Dodger Stadium. Dellin Betances is on the preliminary Team USA roster, though that doesn’t mean he’s on the team for sure. It’s just a preliminary roster. Gregorius (Netherlands), Tanaka (Japan), and Sanchez (Dominican Republic) are among the other Yanekes with a chance to be called into action in the WBC.

April 2nd: Opening Day
The Yankees begin the 2017 season on Sunday, April 2nd against the Rays in Tropicana Field. At least they won’t have to travel too far at the end of Spring Training, huh? The Yankees are actually going to play an exhibition game against the Braves at the brand new SunTrust Park on March 31st next spring. So the team has to go from Tampa for Spring Training to Atlanta for the exhibition game, then back to Tampa for the season opening series against the Rays. Could be worse.

Chicago Cubs win 2016 World Series (!!!)

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Wednesday night, in one of the best postseason games you’ll ever see, the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series with a thrilling 8-7 win over the Indians in ten innings (box score). Admit it, you thought Cleveland was going to win after Rajai Davis clubbed that dramatic game-tying home run off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning. I know I did.

Rather than fold like so many other Cubs teams over the last 108 years, this team kept the Tribe at bay the rest of the game and won in the tenth inning. There was a quick rain delay after the ninth too. Here’s the final out:

Chapman is, by far, the biggest connection between the 2016 Cubs and the Yankees. New York traded him to Chicago at the deadline for Adam Warren and three prospects, including top prospect Gleyber Torres. I’m fairly certain Warren will get a World Series ring out this. Good for him.

Also, assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske spent a few months with the Yankees back in 2009, and catching coach Mike Borzello was in New York a very long time. He was the team’s bullpen coach all through the Joe Torre years. Borzello won rings with the Yankees in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Now he has a 2016 ring too.

Congrats to the Cubbies and their long-suffering fans. And congrats to the Indians too. They had one hell of a year. No Michael Brantley, no Carlos Carrasco, and the Indians still pushed the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game Seven of the World Series. Nothing to be ashamed of there. And now … the offseason.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

So tonight is for all the marbles. The Cubs and Indians play Game Seven of the World Series tonight in Cleveland. One extremely long title drought will come to an end and another will get a little longer. I’m pulling for the Cleveland Andrew Millers, but really, I just want a great game. Give me a classic. Something we’ll talk about the rest of our lives. Corey Kluber and Kyle Hendricks are the starters. FOX has the broadcast at 8pm.

This is tonight’s open thread. If for some reason you’re not going to watch the World Series, both the Knicks and Nets are in action tonight as well. Talk about whatever folks. Enjoy Game Seven.

The Fill-In Starters [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

For the 19th consecutive season, the Yankees used at least eight different starting pitchers in 2016. They actually used nine this year. All nine made at least five starts too, so that number isn’t skewed by some random September call-up who made a spot start in Game 162 or something like that. The Yankees used nine starters this year and they needed all of ’em.

Late in the season, after the rotation was thinned out by injuries (Nathan Eovaldi) and trades (Ivan Nova) and ineffectiveness (Luis Severino), the Yankees turned to a trio of young pitchers to shore things up: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Cessa and Green both came over in the Justin Wilson trade last offseason. Mitchell? He’s been around for a while now. The Yankees drafted him in 2009. All three had their moments this year.

The Work In Progress

Lots of eyebrows were raised when the Yankees traded Wilson last offseason, especially since they sent Adam Warren to the Cubs for Starlin Castro literally one day earlier. Just like that, two of Joe Girardi‘s four most trusted relievers were gone. The Yankees felt they needed rotation depth though — were they right or what? geez — so Wilson was traded for two Triple-A starting pitching prospects.

The lower ranked of the two, at least according to various scouting publications, was Green, a former 11th round pick who had a 3.93 ERA (3.22 FIP) in Double-A last season. Not the sexiest prospect, you know? The Yankees sent the 25-year-old right-hander to Triple-A to start the year, as expected, and holy crap, he dominated. Green had a 1.52 ERA (2.17 FIP) in 94.2 innings for the RailRiders. A total of 649 pitchers threw at least 90 innings in the minors this summer. Green ranked third in ERA and second in FIP.

The Yankees called Green up in early-May to make a spot start not because someone was hurt. They just wanted to give the rest of the rotation an extra day to rest. It wasn’t a “we need someone and he’s available” call-up. Green pitched well and the Yankees gave him a chance. The spot start didn’t go well — six runs (four earned) in four innings against the Diamondbacks — and that’s usually what happens. Green wasn’t the first guy to get lit up in his debut and he won’t be the last.

After a return trip to Triple-A, the Yankees brought Green back in early-July to make another spot start, this time because they didn’t want CC Sabathia and his balky knee to hit and run the bases in San Diego. Green pitched very well, allowing one run on three hits in six innings against the Padres. He struck out eight and didn’t walk anyone. That earned him another start and … the Indians clobbered him for seven runs in 4.1 innings. Four homers too. Three in the first inning!

The Yankees could have easily — and justifiably — sent Green to Triple-A after that, but they didn’t. They kept him around as a long reliever and he pitched well, throwing 8.1 scoreless innings across three appearances following the All-Star break. The Eovaldi injury and Nova trade opened up rotation spots, so Green got another chance. His best start of the season, by far, came against the Blue Jays on August 15th. Eleven strikeouts in six innings of two-hit ball. How about that?

Green remained in the rotation really because the Yankees didn’t have any other options, but also because he earned it by pitching well through August. Unfortunately, his season came to a premature end on September 2nd, when Green left a start against the Orioles with pain in his elbow after only 1.2 innings.

The injury was later diagnosed as a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon. That sounds bad and it is, don’t get me wrong, but the sprain and strain were relatively minor. They ended Green’s season but he didn’t need surgery and is expected to be ready for Spring Training. He had resumed playing catch even before the end of the regular season. Sucks, but at least his rehab seems to be going well.

All told, Green had a 4.73 ERA (5.34 FIP) in 45.2 innings spread across eight starts and four relief appearances with the Yankees this season. He missed a lot of bats (26.3%) and did a good enough job limiting walks (7.6%), but Green didn’t get grounders (41.3%) and didn’t keep the ball in the park (2.36 HR/9). Yikes. Here are the all-important left/right splits:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 103 .253/.311/.394 .306 25.2% 7.8% 47.1% 1.13
vs. LHB 95 .287/.351/.663 .421 27.4% 7.4% 34.5% 3.74

So yeah, Green really needs to figure out a changeup. I don’t think his true talent level is a 3.74 HR/9 (!) against lefties, but still, he needs something to combat them. He can bust them inside with cutters, but that only works so much. Green can get righties out. He has the slider for that. But he has nothing that moves away from lefties to stay off the barrel. Getting that changeup going is priority No. 1.

To Green’s credit, he came over from the Tigers as a work in progress and he did make strides this season. He added the cutter — “From my last outing, I added a cutter. I’ve been working on that the past couple of weeks. I think that made a big difference, being able to throw that for strikes,” said Green after his start in San Diego — and he’s also improved his slider since Spring Training.

“Everything’s gotten better,” said Girardi following the Blue Jays game when asked about Green’s slider. “We loved his arm, and that’s why we traded for him. Each time, he took his demotion the right way and said, this is what I need to work on and I’m going to get better. He never got down on himself, never hung his head and just went to work. And he works extremely hard.”

At this point, Green is a four-pitch pitcher with three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, cutter) and a slider. He has velocity too. His four-seamer averaged 94.4 mph this year and topped out 98.7 mph. That’s a pretty great starting point. The changeup is the big question. Green does throw one — you can see it at the 1:04 mark of the video above — but it’s not consistent enough. It needs to improve.

Depending how the offseason shakes out, the Yankees figure to give Green the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training, assuming he’s healthy. And if that doesn’t work out, he could land in the bullpen. Triple-A is another option. Lots of possibilities here. Green has some lively stuff and he seems to be a quick learner and hard worker. Hopefully those traits mean more progress is coming.

The Ex-Shortstop (And Current TV Analyst)

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

The more well-known player of the two prospects the Yankees received in the Wilson trade was Cessa, not that he was a top prospect or anything. It was the second time Cessa had been traded in six months; he and AL Rookie of the Year candidate (favorite?) Michael Fulmer went from the Mets to the Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline last summer. The Tigers then flipped Cessa for a bullpen arm, which they always seem to need.

Cessa, a former shortstop who converted to pitching in 2011, was impressive in Spring Training, allowing just three runs in ten innings across five outings. All the damage came in one game too. In the other four, he allowed two hits and a walk in eight scoreless innings while striking out eight. Cessa impressed enough with his stuff and results to land a spot on the Opening Day roster. He was in the bullpen to start the season.

The stint on the big league team didn’t last very long. Cessa made his MLB debut on April 8th, in the fourth game of the season, and allowed one run on a Miguel Cabrera homer in two innings. After that, the Yankees figured Cessa was better off in Triple-A, where he could start and pitch regularly, rather than sit in the big league bullpen and pitch sparingly. He’s a young man and he needed to pitch. Mop-up duty wasn’t a good role for him.

Cessa spent the next four months or so riding the Scranton shuttle. He returned to the big leagues briefly in May, and again in late-June and early-July when a fresh arm was needed. In the meantime, Cessa pitched to a 3.03 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 77.1 innings in 14 starts and one relief appearance with the RailRiders. He didn’t have the easiest schedule. Cessa bounced from Triple-A starter to MLB reliever several times in the first half. That was his role.

It wasn’t until late-August that Cessa got a chance to start with the big league team. Eovaldi was hurt, Nova was traded, and Severino pitched himself out of the rotation, so the Yankees gave Cessa an opportunity. He earned it by pitching well in Triple-A and in several short stints in the Bronx. His first start was his best. Cessa threw six shutout innings against the Angels on August 20th. He fanned five, walked one, and allowed three hits.

Cessa remained in the rotation the rest of the season and he pitched well. Better than I think many realize. He made nine starts for the Yankees, allowed more than three runs only twice, and four times he held the other team to two runs or less. Cessa also completed five innings in each of his nine starts, which doesn’t sound like anything special, but the Yankees didn’t get a whole lot of length from their other young starters in 2016.

All told, Cessa finished the season with a 4.35 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 70.1 innings spread across nine starts and six relief appearances. That includes 4.01 ERA (5.14 FIP) in 51.2 innings as a starting pitcher. Three things stood out to me about Cessa.

1. He throws four pitches. Unlike Green, who spent part of the season learning a cutter and still needs to work on his changeup, Cessa already has four pitches, and he threw all of them during his nine-start cameo. It’s the standard four-pitch mix. Here’s how often he threw each pitch as a starter, via Brooks Baseball:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 48.6%
  • Slider: 30.3%
  • Curveball: 11.1%
  • Changeup: 9.9%

The slider is Cessa’s best secondary pitch and his go-to offering in big spots. He’s not shy about using his changeup or curveball though. He uses them regularly. Hitters are going to see four pitches from Cessa. They can’t sit fastball-slider or fastball-changeup or whatever. They have to be ready for everything else as well. Cessa had good velocity as a starter — his heater averaged 95.0 mph and topped out at 98.3 mph in his nine starts — and he definitely has a deep enough repertoire to remain in the rotation.

2. He can be really efficient. Girardi had a pretty quick hook with Cessa at times this year, rarely allowing him to face the middle of the lineup a third time, which I can understand with a young pitcher. Cessa still did a very nice job limiting his pitches and being efficient. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Only three times in his nine starts did he throw more than 85 pitches, yet he still never once threw fewer than five full innings. Cessa was a breath of fresh air in a world of young pitchers on pitch counts.

3. He didn’t miss many bats or limit homers. It isn’t all good news, obviously. Four pitches and efficiency are nice, but they didn’t lead to strikeouts (16.1%) or grounders (43.2%). Cessa didn’t walk many (4.9%), so that’s cool, but he also had a hard time keeping the ball in the park (2.05 HR/9). He allowed homers in all but two of his nine starts. Eleven times he was taken deep in 51.2 innings as a starter, which works out to 1.92 HR/9.

Everyone gave up more home runs this year, balls were flying out of the ballpark, but a 2.05 HR/9 is rather extreme. Yankee Stadium plays a role in that, so it’s no surprise Cessa was more homer prone against left-handed batters, who can take aim at the short porch.

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 167 .242/.289/.439 .311 15.0% 4.2% 42.7% 1.77
vs. LHB 118 .234/.280/.486 .324 17.8% 5.9% 43.8% 2.43

Cessa’s platoon split is not nearly as drastic as Green’s. That’s what having four pitches does for you. A right-handed pitcher giving up a lot of homers to left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium is not exactly uncommon, though Cessa also had his trouble with righties too. It seems like a simple location issue. Here are the pitch locations of the 16 home runs he allowed in the big leagues, via Baseball Savant.

Luis Cessa home runs

Yeah. Fastballs down the middle tend to get hit a long way. Can’t throw them there, Luis. Cessa has the tools to start. I really believe that. The guy has four pitches he throws regularly, he pitches inside, and he throws strikes. So he was homer prone and didn’t miss as many bats as you’d like in his first nine big league starts. Welcome to the club. Tons of guys have done the same. All things considered, I liked what I saw from him in those nine starts.

Cessa finished the season healthy — he started Game 162 and threw 147.2 total innings in 2016, a new career high but not by a lot (139.1 in 2015) — so the 24-year-old is in position to throw upwards of 180 innings next year. That’s pretty great. Cessa is actually doing television work at the moment, broadcasting the World Series for FOX Sports Latin America …

(Phot via Erik Boland)
(Photo via Erik Boland)

… and it’s safe to assume he’ll come to Spring Training with a chance to compete for a rotation spot. He might even be the favorite for a rotation spot over others like Green, Severino, and Mitchell. Cessa performed the best out of all of them this past season, and his present skill set suggests he’s most likely to have success as a starter in the immediate future.

The Broken Toe That Sabotaged A Season

The Spring Training competition for the fifth starter’s spot was a two-man race between Nova and Sabathia. Had it been a three-man competition, Bryan Mitchell would have won. Mitchell was marvelous in camp, allowing one run on seven hits and three walks in 15.2 innings. He fanned 12. Beyond the numbers, his stuff was crisp and he seemed to be locating better than he had at any point in the previous two years with the Yankees.

Mitchell made the Opening Day roster, which wasn’t a shock given his Grapefruit League performance. He was going to be in the bullpen and was the early favorite to assume Adam Warren’s super utility reliever role. Instead, Mitchell managed to break his left big toe covering first base in his final Grapefruit League outing. He took a misstep and the bone cracked. Total fluke injury. The fracture required surgery and sidelined Mitchell for four freakin’ months.

“I felt something, but I definitely didn’t think it was this severe, given that I could still get over to the base and all that,” said Mitchell after the injury. “I’m not trying to be too roller coaster right now. Just have to roll with it. It’s just a bump in the road and we’ll get past it, hopefully quicker than later … It really hasn’t sunk in yet. But it’s tough right now.”

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

It wasn’t until August 8th that Mitchell pitched in his first minor league rehab game. He kept his arm in shape by throwing while sitting in a chair before finally being cleared to play catch and throw off a mound. Mitchell made four minor league rehab starts, reportedly looked as rusty as you’d expect, then was activated off the 60-day DL and optioned to Triple-A Scranton on August 24th.

The Yankees originally planned to keep Mitchell down through the end of the Triple-A postseason so he could start every fifth day, but after Green hurt his elbow, they called him up and stuck him in the rotation. Because he did not spend 20 days in the minors on an optional assignment — most of it was injury rehab — Mitchell did not burn a minor league option this year. He still has one for next season.

Anyway, Mitchell’s first big league start came against the Blue Jays on September 7th, and it went about as well as you could have hoped: four hits and two walks in five scoreless innings. He struck out five. His next two starts were duds (six runs in 2.1 innings and four runs in 4.2 innings) and that wasn’t too surprising. The Dodgers and Red Sox loaded their lineups with lefties and Mitchell paid the price.

Mitchell’s most impressive outings were his final two. On September 23rd, at a raucous Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays worked Mitchell hard and scored three runs in the first two innings. He threw 46 pitches to get six outs. It was all set up to be a short night, but Mitchell settled down, retired ten of the final 13 batters he faced, and completed six full innings. He showed some gumption against a good team in a hostile environment.

Then, five days later, Mitchell had his best start as a big leaguer, when he held the Red Sox to two hits in seven scoreless innings. The Yankees almost wasted that effort, but thankfully Mark Teixeira came up with the walk-off grand slam. Here is the inexplicably unembeddable video of Mitchell’s night. This was a really tough season for Mitchell overall thanks to the toe injury, but at least he was able to end it on a really positive note. That start must have felt great.

Overall, Mitchell finished the season 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP) in five starts and 25 innings. The good news: he got grounders (48.2%) and kept the ball in the park (0.36 HR/9). The bad news: he walked (11.2%) more batters than he struck out (10.3%). That’s a big problem. Can’t be successful walking more batters than you strike out. Mitchell has good stuff. Or, rather, he has two good pitches in his fastball and curveball. He should, in theory, be able to miss bats with those pitches.

The fastball and curveball are Mitchell’s only two reliable pitches, however. His third pitch is his cutter and that’s pretty much the only thing he has to attack left-handed batters because his changeup is not good. So not good he doesn’t even bother to throw it. Losing most of this season is pretty unfortunate. Mitchell would have had a chance to continue working on things. Instead, he lost all that development time.

As with Green and Cessa, I expect Mitchell to come to camp with a chance to win a rotation spot. If that doesn’t work, he could wind up in the bullpen, which was the plan this year before the injury. Of the three guys in this post, I have the most confidence in Cessa remaining a starter long-term and it’s not all that close. Green and Mitchell have more work to do, but I do think that if neither can hack it in the rotation, they can be quality short relievers.

Thoughts prior to Game Seven of the 2016 World Series

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later tonight, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs will play Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. That is one hell of a sentence. Baseball in 2016 is weird, man. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things. The World Series, the Yankees, whatever.

1. Someone is going to end a very long title drought tonight. The Cubs haven’t won since 1908 and the Indians haven’t won since 1948. Heck, this is the first time the Cubs are playing in the World Series since 1945. At least the Tribe won a few pennants in the 1990s. I’m looking forward to seeing history tonight but it’s also going to be sort of weird for the narrative of one of these two franchises to change. All I’ve known as a baseball fan is the Cubs never ever ever winning and the Indians being, well, all Clevelandy and stuff. I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world where the Cubs are no longer the Lovable Losers. It’s going to be really weird if they win.

2. I’ve always envisioned the Cubs team that breaks the championship drought being some sort of plucky underdog that overcomes long odds to win a title. Know what I mean? The 1996 Yankees were kinda sorta like that. These Cubs are a juggernaut, and if they do win tonight, we’re in for an offseason of talk about the start of a potential dynasty and things like that. I dunno, I find the Indians more endearing than the Cubs. The Cubbies are expected to win, right? They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day One of Spring Training. The Indians had a phenomenal regular season, but they’re without their best hitter (Michael Brantley) and second best starter (Carlos Carrasco) due to injury. They’ve had to overcome much longer odds to get here. It’s boring when the best team wins, right? Except when that team is the Yankees, of course.

3. How cow, how much worse does Buck Showalter not using Zach Britton in the AL Wildcard Game look now? It’s like all the other postseason managers looked at that and decided, “I’m not letting that happen to me.” Managers have been extremely aggressive with their top relievers this October. Terry Francona has been using Andrew Miller for four or five outs pretty much every time out. Aroldis Chapman had an eight-out save over the weekend. Kenley Jansen threw three innings with the Dodgers down by five in Game Six of the NLCS. The traditional reliever mold has been shattered this postseason. It’s great to see. The games are more competitive because of it, I think. This can’t work across a full season, Miller’s arm would be mush by June if Francona tried this in the regular season, but in October, when every game means so much, managers have ridden their top relievers hard.

4. Another thing about the postseason reliever usage: It’s kinda funny to me that so many folks are making a big deal about closers getting four or five outs after growing up watching Mariano Rivera get two-out saves regularly in October. Mo appeared in 96 postseason games (holy crap) and he recorded at least four outs in 58 of them, or 60.4%. He threw two full innings 33 times in those 96 games. That’s pretty incredible. Even as good as Miller and Chapman have been this postseason, they’ve made it interesting at times. Rivera never seemed to do that. He was nearly automatic in October, and he did it for nearly two decades. There really is never going to another one like him, huh?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

5. How good is Alex Rodriguez on television? He’s such a good analyst. He’s well-prepared, he knows the game inside and out, and he’s able to talk from experience about facing certain pitchers. A-Rod‘s so good. It’s a shame they stick him with Pete Rose, who provides a little comic relief, but that’s about it. I have no idea whether Alex wants to do television full-time. It’s not like he needs the money following his playing career. He could hang out with his family all summer, pop into Extended Spring Training and Instructional League now and then to do the special instructor thing, then do the postseason for FOX. Hopefully we get more A-Rod on television at some point though. He’s too good for someone not to hire him. Hey, maybe YES will bring him to join their rotating cast of analysts. That’d be neat.

6. MLB is going to have to do something about the length of games at some point. The Dodgers-Nationals series in particular was brutal. The average time of game that series was over four hours and none of the games went to extra innings, and none were slugfests with a lot of offense. The pace is just so slow. These postseason games start at 8pm ET and they’re not ending until midnight, sometimes even later. For me, that’s fine. I stay up and watch anyway. Many folks can’t do that, especially young kids. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said cultivating young fans is a top priority for MLB going forward, yet kids are lucky if they can watch two or three innings before bedtime in the postseason. That’s a problem. Something has to give. A World Series day game would be a good start. Do it on Saturday or Sunday. Give kids a chance to see the end of the game. These games are exciting and all, but man, speed it up. There are too many mound visits and things like that. Too much standing around. Too much time with no actual baseball being played.

7. The offseason officially starts tomorrow and for some reason I get the sense the Yankees are going to act quickly this winter. They might try to get a jump on the free agent market by making a big offer to Chapman or Jansen early, like they did with CC Sabathia back in the day. I think they’ll push hard to complete some trades too, either the seemingly inevitable Brian McCann deal with the Braves or something else. This is just a hunch. I have no inside information here. The Yankees have been pretty patient in recent offseasons and that’s generally a good thing. They sorted through all their options and made what they felt were the best moves and decisions. This year, with free agency so weak and the trade market potentially so competitive, I think we’re going to see the Yankees push to get things done quickly to avoid any prolonged negotiations.