Given emphasis on young players, Yankees should be all-in on Jason Heyward this offseason

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Last week Joe Girardi gave his annual end-of-season press conference, which was like all other end-of-season press conferences, except he emphasized the need to find a way to keep players fresh and productive throughout the season. That makes sense, right? The Yankees looked sluggish for much of the second half and it led to their swift elimination in the wildcard game.

Last year Girardi emphasized the need to get younger during his end-of-season press conference. “At times we ran out four guys, five guys over 35 years old. I don’t think that will happen next year,” he said. “Who is going to be the next great Yankee people latch onto? I’m anxious to see some kids in the minor leagues come up and have some tremendous years.”

At the time it sounded like lip service, the kind of thing every manager says at every end-of-season press conference, but both Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner followed with similar comments. Soon thereafter the Yankees showed they were serious by acquiring Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. During the season they backed it up by making Luis Severino and Greg Bird regulars, not to mention all the other call-ups.

The plan to get younger worked, at least partly. The Yankees went from being outscored in 2013 and 2014 to having the fourth best run differential in the league (+66) in 2015. They returned to the postseason (albeit briefly) and they now have some young building blocks on the roster moving forward. It’s been a while since we could say that. Gregorius, Eovaldi, Severino, Bird and others like John Ryan Murphy and Rob Refsnyder look like keepers.

The Yankees went with young players this past season and were rewarded immediately, so there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to lean young going forward. And if that is the case, I think the Yankees should augment their youth movement by going all-in on impending free agent Jason Heyward this offseason. It sounds contradictory to had out a huge free agent contract while trying to get younger, but Heyward is no ordinary free agent.

First and foremost, Heyward would be part of that youth movement. He just turned 26 in August, making him roughly the same age as Gregorius and Eovaldi. Players almost never hit free agency in their mid-20s. The last was who, Alex Rodriguez? And the next after Heyward will be … Bryce Harper in three years? Who knows what will happen between now and then.

Given his age, you can look at Heyward and expect to get the best years of his career. Maybe not every single one of them, but most of them. With most free agents you’re paying top dollar for what the player used to be while getting something less than that. Just look at, well, pretty much every free agent the Yankees have signed over the last decade. With Heyward you’re buying prime years. Not one or two, but potentially many, like five or six.

The Yankees tried to acquire Heyward from the Braves last offseason, so we know they like him. He’s a left-handed hitter with power and patience as well as excellent defense. Who wouldn’t like him? Heyward hit .293/.359/.439 (121 wRC+) this season, including .318/.397/.469 (140 wRC+) in the second half, and he did stuff like this in the postseason:

That’s not just an opposite field home run. That’s a no-doubt opposite field home run off super-ace Jake Arrieta on a pitch that was a few inches off the plate. ENHANCE:

Jason Heyward Jake Arrieta

There are very few players in the big leagues able to not only go out and get that pitch, but reach out and drive it out of the park with authority. The only player on the Yankees who I think even has a chance of going deep on a pitch like that is Mark Teixeira. I don’t think A-Rod or Brian McCann could do that at this point. Heyward did it like it wasn’t no thing.

Given his age and ability and all that, I think it’s easy to see why any team in the league would want Heyward for the next half-decade or so. He hits for power, his strikeouts continue to go down …

Jason Heyward strikeouts

… he draws walks, he steals 20 bags a year, he plays elite defense, and by all accounts he’s a great guy who is an asset in the clubhouse. Heyward’s not a true franchise cornerstone like Harper or Mike Trout, but holy moly, he’s got the skill set to be a two-way monster and is about to enter his peak years. That’s the kind of guy worth a huge free agent contract.

Of course, fitting Heyward on the Yankees is easier said than done. For starters, he’s going to end up getting $20M+ a year, possibly $25M+ a year, and I’m not sure the Yankees are ready to commit that much money to another player. They also have a full outfield already with no logical spot to play Heyward, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran.

To me, as an outsider looking at the Yankees, those are hurdles more than roadblocks. You can make it work. The Yankees have the money, there’s very little doubt about that, and next winter they’re going to shed Teixeira’s contract and Beltran’s contract. Hal Steinbrenner would have to be over his payroll comfort zone for one season before things get back to normal in 2017.

As for the roster situation, the Yankees could always trade Gardner, or they could simply hold onto everyone and let things sort themselves out in Spring Training. Someone could get hurt in camp and clear a spot, or maybe Girardi decides the best thing to do is use Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran — the over-30 guys — in some kind of rotation to keep them rested. Having too many good players is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned.

The Yankees were smart for going young this past season. It’s something they’ve needed to do for a while but didn’t have the personnel to pull off. At age 26, Heyward can be part of this youth movement. The Yankees have the Teixeira and Beltran money coming off the books next year, but look at the 2016-17 free agent class. It’s weak. There’s certainly no one of Heyward’s caliber scheduled to hit the market next year. Where’s the Teixeira and Beltran money going?

The first year of the Yankees rebuild — and that’s essentially what this year was, you know, the Yankees version of a rebuild — was pretty successful. Even with the financial and roster hurdles, Heyward is the right free agent at the right time for New York, a dynamic player in his mid-20s available for nothing but money (and a draft pick). He wouldn’t be a hindrance to the youth movement. He’d be part of it.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Once again, I’m posting today’s open thread a little earlier than usual because there’s an afternoon postseason game. Both games today are potential clinchers too, so that’s fun. Here’s the schedule:

  • Cardinals at Cubs (Lackey vs. Hammel): 4:30pm ET on TBS (Cubs lead 2-1)
  • Dodgers at Mets (Kershaw vs. Matz): 8:00pm ET on TBS (Mets lead 2-1)

The (hockey) Rangers and Devils are both playing this evening as well. Talk about those games or whatever else is going on right here. Have at it.

Chris Young says it is “too soon” to know whether he’ll re-sign with Yankees

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

By fourth outfielder standards, the Yankees struck gold this season with Chris Young, who carried his late-season success in 2014 over into 2015. The Yankees quickly re-signed Young to a one-year contract last offseason, but last week he told Dan Martin and George King it is “too soon” to know whether he will return to the Bronx next year.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen this year or what opportunities I would have,” said Young. “I think I did a good job of taking advantage of the chances I got. I’ve made some good adjustments since coming here toward the end of last year and did the things I need to do to become productive … We’ll see what happens, but I’ve enjoyed being here.”

Young, 32, hit .252/.320/.453 (109 wRC+) with 14 home runs this past season. Believe it or not, he actually played in 140 games this year, but only 77 of them were starts. He came off the bench to pinch-hit or replace Carlos Beltran defensively in the other games. Young’s primary job was to hit lefties, and he put up a strong .327/.397/.575 (162 wRC+) batting line against southpaws in 2015.

Despite a miserable August — .122/.234/.268 (40 wRC+) with a 29.8% strikeout rate — Young was actually better in the second half (119 wRC+) than the first (103 wRC+). That surprised me. I guess that ugly August made it easy to overlook his productive September (122 wRC+). Young was also fine defensively as far as catching the ball goes. His arm? It was … not good.

The Yankees have two left-handed hitting starting outfielders plus a switch-hitter in Beltran who is more productive against righties. A right-handed hitting fourth outfielder isn’t a necessity, but it would fit the roster much better than another lefty. The Yankees have a slew of lefty hitting fourth outfielder candidates, most notably Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and even Dustin Ackley.

Young figures to try to turn his productive season into a multi-year contract — Scott Hairston, another righty hitting fourth outfielder, turned his huge 2012 season with the Mets into a two-year contract — but I can’t imagine the Yankees will go for that. My guess is they will look for the next Chris Young this offseason, a guy coming off a down year with a chance to bounce back in a platoon role.

The list of right-handed hitting fourth outfielder candidates set to hit free agency this winter includes Rajai Davis, Chris Denorfia, Jonny Gomes, Steve Pearce, and Drew Stubbs. They’re the most notable. The Yankees are going to want a good defender so they can replace Beltran in the late innings, which rules out Gomes and Pearce. There’s always the non-tender and trade markets too.

Young did a fine job for the Yankees this summer — he was streaky as hell, but very productive overall — though he strikes me as the type of player they won’t overpay to keep. It’s the whole “let him walk a year early rather than a year late” line of thinking. If they can bring Young back on another one-year deal, great. My guess is he’ll be looking for a little more security.

The Shortstop of the Present, the Shortstop of the Future [2015 Season Review]


Last season, Yankees icon Derek Jeter called it a career and retired following a first ballot Hall of Fame worthy 20-year career. Jeter announced his plan to retire in Spring Training, so it was no surprise, yet replacing him was going to be a daunting task. The Yankees had no one in the farm system ready to step in at shortstop and the free agent market offered only imperfect solutions.

Rather than open their wallets for someone like Asdrubal Cabrera or swing a trade for a proven veteran like Jimmy Rollins, the Yankees went for youth, acquiring Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade that sent Shane Greene to the Tigers. Greene was pretty good for the Yankees last year. It was a risky move. At the time of the trade, Didi was only 24 years old with a career 84 wRC+ and a reputation for being a standout defender. Gregorius was the shortstop of the future? No, Gregorius is the shortstop of the present and future.

The Pursuit

First things first: the Yankees did not simply pull Didi’s name out of a hat last winter when looking for a shortstop. They’ve been pursuing him for years. We first heard the Yankees connected to Gregorius during the 2013 Winter Meetings, when there was talk of a three-way trade involving Brett Gardner (!) and Justin Masterson. There were also some more rumors at the 2014 trade deadline.

Jon Heyman reported special advisor Gene Michael loved Gregorius while Brendan Kuty reported pro scout Eric Chavez and third base coach Joe Espada were big believers as well. Chavez played with Didi with the Diamondbacks while Espada spent the last few seasons in the front office and scouted Gregorius in Triple-A. Lots of people vouched for Didi, and the Yankees finally pulled the trigger on the trade on December 5th, a week before the Winter Meetings.

The Promise of Spring

Coming into Spring Training, the Yankees talked about platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan at shortstop, which was their way of lowering expectations. They always seem to do that with notable pickups. Gregorius was very impressive in Spring Training, hitting .271/.308/.458 in 20 Grapefruit League games while flashing some serious leather. It was a very promising first impression. There was definitely some excitement about Gregorius given his play in the spring.

The Ugliness of April

Most fans aren’t wackos like me who obsessively watch Spring Training games, so Gregorius didn’t make his real first impression until the regular season started. And boy, was his first impression bad. Gregorius went 0-2 at the plate and was hit by a pitch on Opening Day, and, with the Yankees trailing 6-1 with two on and two outs in the eighth, Didi was thrown out trying to steal third base.

Where was he going? Who knows. It was an awful and pointless stolen base attempt given the game situation, with the Yankees desperately in need of as many base-runners as possible. The bad base-running decisions continued in the coming days as well. Most notably, Gregorius was caught taking too big a turn around first base on his first hit of the season, and was thrown out wandering too far away from the bag.

It wasn’t just the base-running blunders either. Gregorius didn’t hit a lick in April — he put up a .206/.261/.238 (36 wRC+) batting line with only two extra-base hits (both doubles) in 69 plate appearances during the season’s first month — and his defense was shaky as well.

It wasn’t so much physical errors in the field — Didi did make three errors in April, but only one was a routine play, the other two were tough plays he failed to complete — but mental mistakes. Gregorius cut off a throw from the outfield and didn’t make the relay throw home, allowing a run to score. He slid to stop a hard-hit grounder and still tried to turn the double play rather than going for the sure out at first. Stuff like that.

The first month of the Didi Gregorius era was not pretty. Fans at Yankee Stadium chanted “Der-ek! Je-ter!” every time he made a mistake, others wanted him benched with Stephen Drew moving to shortstop, and others wanted him sent to Triple-A. It was understandable! Gregorius looked awful in every phase of the game in April. Aside from sitting him against some tough lefties later in the month, the Yankees stuck with Didi.

The Rise of Didi

Gregorius’ early season slump continued into mid-May — he was hitting .204/.269/.241 (41 wRC+) as late as May 17th — and the calls for a demotion only grew louder. The bad base-running mistakes stopped though, and his defense did improve quite a bit, but the offense was non-existent. Didi wasn’t hitting righties, wasn’t hitting lefties, wasn’t hitting for average, wasn’t drawing walks, wasn’t hitting for power, nothing. He contributing nothing at the plate.

The Yankees had Alex Rodriguez work with Gregorius on his defense early in the season, and they again turned to veteran players to help their young shortstop, this time offensively. Hitting coach Jeff Pentland enlisted A-Rod and Carlos Beltran to help Gregorius, and their message was essentially this: be more selective at the plate and taking batting practice as seriously as game at-bats. “Alex and Carlos had a big hand in talking to Didi,” said Pentland.

The results came almost immediately. Didi went 2-for-4 on May 20th, hit his first home run of the season in the next game, then hit his second home run of the season the game after that. He finished May on a 10-for-37 (.270) run and kept hitting into the summer months. In July and August, Gregorius was a legitimate threat the plate.

Didi Gregorius monthly splits

Didi slumped like the rest of the Yankees in September, but his overall performance at the plate took a huge step forward after working with A-Rod and Beltran. After bottoming out with that 41 wRC+ on May 17th, Gregorius hit .281/.331/.403 (101 wRC+) with nine home runs in 458 plate appearances the rest of the season. That is pretty awesome. He finished the year with a .265/.318/.370 (89 wRC+) batting line. The league average shortstop hit .256/.307/.375 (85 wRC+) in 2015.

Gregorius did not only improve at the plate. He also improved in the field, as his incredible natural gifts — especially that throwing arm, gosh — became more and more evident each passing week. Gregorius showed he can range for the ball in either direction, charge it and make a barehand play, go back for a basket catch, the works. He can do it all on the field. Here’s a very necessary highlight reel:

That glove is why the Yankees the acquired Gregorius more than anything. Anything he gave them at the plate was going to be considered a bonus this year. The defense was the priority, and after that rocky start, he shined on both sides of the ball. Didi played a beautiful shortstop after those early season blunders. He went from being the guy no one wanted in the lineup to the guy everyone wanted the ball hit to with the game on the line. It was quite a turn around.

In retrospect, I underestimated the difficulty of replacing Jeter. Yes, Jeter was not very good last year, but he’s still Derek Jeter, and that’s an awfully tough act to follow. The pressure of replacing a legend seemed to overwhelm Gregorius early in the season and that’s understandable. Replacing Jeter was never going to be easy no matter who did it. By the end of the season, Didi looked way more comfortable on the field. Way, way more comfortable.

Situational Struggles

Although he improved as the season went on, Gregorius did struggle in so-called situational at-bats. For starters, he didn’t hit lefties at all. He put up a .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+) batting line against southpaws, which isn’t a total disaster in terms of OBP, but it’s not good. The leverage-based stats show Gregorius also struggled in big spots.

Didi Gregorius situational stats

Gregorius is jumpy at the plate — he’s got happy feet, for sure — and that gives off the impression of being overly aggressive in those situational spots. I’m not all that concerned about his situational struggles — Gregorius had 56 plate appearances in high-leverage situations, that’s all — but it is something that can be improved. At the same time, we’re talking about a guy batting eighth or ninth. His performance in those spots shouldn’t be crucial to the team’s success.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Between his league average-ish offense (by shortstop standards) and strong defense, Gregorius ranked seventh among all shortstops in both fWAR (3.1) and bWAR (3.3) this season. He is clearly the shortstop of the present and the shortstop of the future. His play over the final four months of the season won him over with fans — “Di-di! Di-di!” chants became fairly common at Yankee Stadium — and Didi will be back at short next season, hoping to further improve his game. Gregorius was arguably the most promising development for the Yankees this summer.

Heyman: Yankees likely to pursue Jeff Samardzija as a free agent this offseason


This doesn’t surprise me. According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees have “real interest” in impending free agent Jeff Samardzija and are likely to pursue the right-hander this offseason. The free agent signing period opens five days after the end of the World Series, so sometime in early-November.

Samardzija, 30, had a miserable walk year in 2015, pitching to a 4.96 ERA (4.23 FIP) in 32 starts and 214 innings for the White Sox. Even with the poor season, I expect the ChiSox to make Samardzija a qualifying offer, meaning he’ll cost a draft pick to sign. Bringing him back on a one-year, $15.8M contract wouldn’t be the end of the world for Chicago. They could always trade him if they won’t want him at that price. Someone would take him.

There’s a few reasons why I say Heyman’s report isn’t surprising. For starters, the Yankees have had interest in Samardzija dating back to at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, so this isn’t coming out of nowhere. There are also several ties to Samardzija in the organization. Larry Rothschild was his first big league pitching coach with the Cubs and special advisor Jim Hendry originally drafted Samardzija during his time as Cubs GM.

Samardzija had a rough year in 2015, no doubt about it, but he was excellent as recently as 2014 (2.99 ERA and 3.20 FIP). He’s also a workhorse, throwing at least 213 innings in each of the last three seasons. He had 19 starts of at least seven innings this summer. The Yankees had 35 (!) as a team. Wouldn’t it nice to have one guy who didn’t tax the bullpen every time out? Everyone once in a while Samardzija does this too:

Heyman says the Yankees like Samardzija for a few reasons, most notably his potential and competitiveness. I’ll add that he throws hard (averaged 94.2 mph in 2015), he never walks anyone (5.4%), and he’s a big dude (listed at 6-foot-5, 225 lbs.). Those are three traits the Yankees love. Just look at their pitching staff. Huge guys who throw hard and throw a lot of strikes are their thing.

At this point, I think Samardzija is what is his. Guys who don’t fulfill their potential by time they reach their 30th birthday usually don’t ever get there. That doesn’t mean he’s bad! He was bad this year but not the few years before that. Samardzija probably won’t ever be an ace, but he can be a good and occasionally great innings-eater. The Yankees could use someone like that.

The qualifying offer could really throw a wrench into things because I don’t think the Yankees will forfeit a first round pick to sign any non-Jason Heyward free agent this offseason. They’re likely looking at Samardzija as a bounceback candidate, a one-year contract guy who can prove himself and try again on the open market next winter. I can’t imagine they like the idea of a long-term deal. We’ll see.

Yankees assign Domingo Acevedo to Arizona Fall League

(Staten Island Advance)
(Staten Island Advance)

According to the official roster, the Yankees have assigned RHP Domingo Acevedo to the Surprise Saguaros of the Arizona Fall League. He is the eighth farmhand heading to the desert, joining C Gary Sanchez, LHP Ian Clarkin, SS Tyler Wade, 1B/OF Tyler Austin, OF Dustin Fowler, LHP Chaz Hebert, and LHP Tyler Webb.

Baseball America recently ranked Acevedo the third best prospect in the Short Season NY-Penn League. Here’s a snippet of their scouting report:

Acevedo hit 103 mph at least once this summer and routinely worked his fastball at or around triple digits. He sits 95-96 mph early in starts but reaches back for 98-100 when he needs it … Acevedo complements his plus fastball with a plus changeup at 85-88 mph that serves as his main secondary offering. He completes the three-pitch mix with a below-average slider

Acevedo, 21, had a 1.69 ERA (2.85 FIP) in 12 starts and 54 innings for Short Season Staten Island this year, including the postseason. (He also made one spot start for Low-A Charleston.) He posted strong strikeout (26.2%) and walk (7.2%) rates. Acevedo’s a big boy. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 190 lbs. on the Surprise roster.

The 34-game Arizona Fall League season begins tomorrow. With all due respect to the other players, Clarkin’s return from the elbow injury that caused him to miss the entire 2015 regular season is the big story this year. He’ll be the youngest player in the AzFL.

Monday Open Thread

Like late last week, I’m going to post today’s open thread a little earlier than usual only because there are a bunch of postseason games throughout the day and I don’t want the other threads getting cluttered up with off-topic chatter. Here is the postseason schedule for today:

  • Royals at Astros (Ventura vs. McCullers): 1pm ET on FOX Sports 1 (Astros up 2-1)
  • Blue Jays at Rangers (Dickey vs. Holland): 4pm ET on FOX Sports 1 (Rangers up 2-1)
  • Cardinals at Cubs (Wacha vs. Arrieta): 6pm ET on TBS (Series tied 1-1)
  • Dodgers at Mets (Anderson vs. Harvey): 8:30pm ET on TBS (Series tied 1-1)

The Steelers and Chargers are the Monday Night Football game later tonight. So talk about those games or anything else right here throughout the day. Have at it.