The Many Errors of Chase Headley [2015 Season Review]


Last offseason the Yankees had exactly one infielder under contract. That was first baseman Mark Teixeira. They needed a new second baseman, a new shortstop, and a new third baseman. It was a clean slate, which is both good and scary. Having to rebuild three-fourths of an infield in one offseason is a lot of work.

The Yankees opted to re-sign Chase Headley to play third base. He provided strong two-way play after coming over at the trade deadline last summer — Headley hit .262/.371/.398 (122 wRC+) and played the hell out of the hot corner in 58 games — so they gave him a four-year deal worth $52M in mid-December. Headley reportedly turned down a $65M offer because he enjoyed his time in New York so much. His first full season in pinstripes didn’t go as well as his first half-season.

A Monster in Spring

As a team, the Yankees scored 1,283 runs from 2013-14, the fourth fewest in the AL. And, coming into 2015, there were major questions about the offense. Teixeira was coming off a brutal second half, Carlos Beltran had offseason elbow surgery, Brian McCann had a disappointing first year in New York, Alex Rodriguez … gosh, who knew what to expect from A-Rod? Lots of questions.

Headley, who turned 31 in May, had a history of being an average or better hitter. No one expected him to repeat his monster 2012 season (31 homers and a 145 wRC+) but league average output built more on OBP than power was a reasonable expectation given his track record. Then Headley absolutely mashed in Spring Training, putting up a .305/.349/.543 line with five doubles and three homers in 21 games. At the time, it was easy to think he could step into the middle of the lineup should one of the other veterans falter.

A Streaky First Half

The first few weeks of the season were a bit weird for Headley. He went 15-for-59 (.254) in his first 15 games with five multi-hit games mixed in there. Headley also hit two homers in his first six games of the season, including this game-tying blast in the bottom of the ninth against the Red Sox on April 10th.

That was the 19-inning marathon loss, so the homer ultimately went for naught, but it was a pretty huge hit at the time. The Yankees struggled big time out of the gate — they lost four of their first five games, yuck — and Headley had a knack for big hits in the second half last year. He came through again that night.

The rest of Headley’s first half was really streaky. He’d be great for two weeks (.327/.382/.510 from May 16th to 30th), slump for two weeks (.212/.241/.250 from June 2nd to 16th), his power would disappear (24 games and 109 plate appearances between homers from May 26th to June 22nd), then reappear in a hurry (two homers in his next five games). Most players are streaky but Headley was really streaky in the first half.

Headley went into the All-Star break hitting .255/.310/.373 (87 wRC+) with eight homers, which was definitely below expectations. His walk rate (6.8%) was down compared to his career average (10.0%). And yet, when Jacoby Ellsbury got hurt, Headley stepped into the No. 2 spot in the lineup and hit .291/.340/.376 in the interim. That’s pretty good. It was an up and down first half and the Yankees were going to need more from their third baseman down the stretch.

Second Half Headley

Throughout his career, Headley has a history of being a better hitter after the All-Star break. He’s a career 102 wRC+ hitter in the first half and 122 wRC+ in the second half, so there was some reason to expect improved performance after the All-Star break.

Sure enough, Headley came out of the gate strong after the break, hitting .327/.407/.473 (145 wRC+) in 42 games and 167 plate appearances from the All-Star break through the end of August. He still wasn’t hitting for power (only two homers) but was doing pretty much everything else. Headley had his best game of the season on August 30th, going 3-for-3 with a double, a homer, and two walks in a blowout win over the Braves.

September was rough for Headley, as it was for many of his teammates. He hit .179/.252/.223 (23 wRC+) overall with a 28.5% strikeout rate, which is ghastly. Seemingly no one hit that final month, but geez, Headley was especially bad. He of course started the wildcard game — it was the first postseason game of Headley’s career — and went 0-for-2 with a walk.

All told, Headley put up a .259/.324/.369 (91 wRC+) batting line with eleven home runs, a 7.9% walk rate, and a 21.0% strikeout rate in 156 games and 642 plate appearances this season. The average and OBP are fine, you can live with that from a guy who spent the majority of the season batting sixth and seventh, but where was the power? Solid so-called clutch stats — .258/.324/.435 (108 wRC+) in high-leverage spots and .285/.350/.482 (124 wRC+) with runners in scoring position — helped offset that a bit.

The Disappearing Power

Outside of that huge 2012 season, Headley’s never really been a power hitter throughout his career. Obviously spacious Petco Park had something to do with that, but, even on the road, Headley only mustered a .158 ISO as an everyday player with San Diego from 2009 through the trade in 2014. That’s more or less league average.

This year though, Headley hit only those eleven homers, his lowest total in four years, and had a career low .110 ISO. That’s in hitter friendly Yankee Stadium, remember. Headley’s a switch-hitter who was better against lefties (104 wRC+) than righties (86 wRC+), and there was no significant difference between his home (six homers and .110 ISO) and road (five homers and .111 ISO) power numbers.

We only have one year of exit velocity data right now, so that won’t help us much. Quality of contact data from Baseball Info Solutions, which is recorded by human stringers and inherently includes some scorer bias, will have to serve as a substitute. Here’s is Headley’s batted ball data since becoming an everyday player:

Chase Headley batted ball

The first thing that jumped out to me was the spike in infield pop-up rate. Headley’s IFFB% from 2010-14 was well below the league average (~9.5%). Infield pop-ups are usually just misses, unless you’re talking about an old school power dude with an uppercut swing, like Teixeira or Adam Dunn.

Furthermore, Headley’s ground ball rate didn’t spike this year. If he had suddenly started beating the ball into the ground, then it would explain where his power went. Ground balls don’t go for extra base hits all that often. The spikes in soft contact and hard contact rates are indeed huge, and yet, the league averages this year were 18.6 Soft% and 28.6 Hard%. Headley’s rates this season were out of line with his previous seasons but not the league averages.

Of course, Headley is a switch-hitter, and those numbers lump his left and right-handed swings together. Since he did damage against southpaws this summer, let’s focus on his lefty production. Here are three left-handed spray charts. From left to right you have Headley’s 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons. I recommend clicking the image for a larger view.

Chase Headley 2013-15 spray charts

Headley, like many left-handed hitters, tends to pull his ground balls to the right side of the infield, which is why he gets shifted. This past season he hit way more line drives (the yellow dots) to left field as a left-handed hitter than he did in 2013 or 2014. It’s been a gradual progress — some liners to left in 2013, more in 2014, then even more in 2015.

That’s a good thing! Line drives to all fields are pretty cool. The problem is the lack of line drives beyond the middle of the outfield. The 2013-14 spray charts show a bunch of yellow dots to the warning track/wall in left field. This season there was one. So all those liners to left were short line drives, which are not the kind of line drives that result in power.

The extra liners to left this year — again, this is as a left-handed batter only — could be a one year fluke. Weird stuff happens sometimes. It could also be the result of working with a new hitting coach and a change in approach. Headley could have intentionally being going to left to avoid all those frustrating shifts. It could also be that his bat has slowed and he can’t turn on pitches like he once did. That could also explain the just missed pop-ups.

I don’t think anyone is expecting Headley to hit 30+ homers. Maybe not even 20+. But eleven dingers for a guy who bats the majority of the time as a lefty in Yankee Stadium? I was expecting more. The sharp spike in pop-ups combined with all the additional balls to left field give me some hope it was mechanical — Headley was focused on going the other way, something he’s not really used to doing. That’s my hope, anyway.

The Disappearing Defense

Errors are a bad way to evaluate defense, but holy moly did Headley commit a lot of errors this summer. Twenty-three total, by far a new career high (previous career high: 13 back in 2010) and the fifth most in baseball behind Marcus Semien (35), Ian Desmond (27), Starlin Castro (24), and Brett Lawrie (24).

Twelve of those 23 errors were throwing errors and many of them came on routine plays, like this one:

I can’t imagine how many errors Teixeira saved Headley with scoops at first base too. Headley still made some truly outstanding plays this year though, so it’s not like he forgot how the field entirely. I mean, look:

The defensive tools are there. But the throwing miscues piled up this year, and when you watch him play — plus the fact most of the errors came on routine plays — it’s hard not to think the problems are mental. Just look at the release on the throwing error in the video a little while ago:

Chase Headley error

Headley’s tentative. He takes his time, steps into the throw — I count three steps between fielding the ball and the throw — swings his arm back, then the throw sails away. Headley made a ton of throws like that this year and, to be fair, most were on-line. But many more were off-line compared to what you’d expect from a big league third baseman.

Here’s Headley making a fairly routine play last year, for comparison:

Chase Headley 2014 throw

There’s conviction behind that throw. Headley fields the hop and throws a dart to first base in one nice and fluid motion. That’s how big leaguers are supposed to play third base. There was no thinking there. It was all reaction. That wasn’t the case this year.

For what it’s worth, the errors did not come as frequently later in the season. Headley committed a ridiculous 16 errors in his first 69 games at third base and only seven in his final 86 games. That’s still a lot though! This is a guy who committed eight errors total in 127 games last year.

To me, it doesn’t look like anything is physically wrong with Headley. He looks like a guy dealing with a mental block, or the yips if you prefer. This isn’t a severe Knoblauchian oh my gosh he can’t throw ever again case of the yips, but Headley struggled this year. He didn’t look sure of himself, and getting over the yips can be really tough. Lots can go wrong during that long throw from third base.

“I did the extra work, but it wasn’t one thing to look at. More than anything I had gotten to the point a little bit where I was getting caught in between,” said Headley about his throwing problems this summer. “Hopefully it’s behind me and hopefully it makes me mentally stronger.’’

Looking Ahead to 2016

Headley has three years left on his contract and even though he doesn’t have a no-trade clause, I have a hard time thinking the Yankees would trade him. Not because they wouldn’t be able to find a taker, but because there are almost no viable replacements available. The best free agent third baseman is David Freese — or Daniel Murphy, I suppose we should count him — and the Yankees don’t have anyone in the system ready to step in. Headley figures to be back next year and hopefully he gets over his throwing issues. Finding some power is a secondary concern to the throwing in my book.

Poll: Protection decisions for the 2015 Rule 5 Draft

Hebert. (Presswire)
Hebert and his poorly buttoned jersey. (Presswire)

This Friday is the deadline for clubs to set their 40-man rosters for the Rule 5 Draft. (They also have to set their Triple-A and Double-A rosters for the minor league phase, though that isn’t significant.) The Rule 5 Draft isn’t as helpful as it once was, but some useful players still slip through the cracks, including Odubel Herrera (3.9 fWAR!) and Delino DeShields Jr. this past season.

Generally speaking, high school players selected in the 2011 draft and earlier are eligible for this offseason’s Rule 5 Draft. So are college players drafted in 2012 or earlier and international free agents signed during the 2010-11 signing period or earlier. There are some exceptions — eligibility is determined by the player’s age the day he signs, and we rarely know the exact date — but those are the general guidelines.

The Yankees got a head start on their Rule 5 Draft protection moves this year, adding Luis Severino, Greg Bird, and James Pazos to the 40-man roster during the regular season. Severino and Bird were locks to be added while Pazos was on the bubble. Obviously the Yankees like him as a hard-throwing lefty.

The club still has several players eligible for this year’s Rule 5 Draft, including some notable prospects. Whether they are worth protecting is another matter. Here’s a look at the biggest names.

3B Miguel Andujar

The case for protecting: Andujar has some of the best tools in the organization, and while his performance hasn’t been great — 99 wRC+ at Low-A Charleston in 2014 and a 98 wRC+ at High-A Tampa in 2015 — he’s been among the youngest players in the league at each stop. There is a shocking shortage of quality third basemen in baseball these days. Andujar has the defensive chops for the hot corner and the tools to be a two-way player down the road.

The case against protecting: The tools outshine the production at this point. The 20-year-old Andujar offers little versatility (he’s a third baseman only), so a team is unlikely to scoop him up for a utility tole. He hasn’t hit enough in the low minors to think he could handle big league pitching at this point either. Simply put, Andujar isn’t ready for MLB. You could argue he isn’t even ready for Double-A.

IF Abi Avelino

The case for protecting: Avelino, 20, has good tools and top of the line instincts, so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. He had a solid 2015 season, hitting .260/.314/.334 (97 wRC+) with 54 steals in 72 attempts (81%) in 123 games split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Avelino is also a capable defender at both middle infield positions, so it’s not out of the question he could stick as a backup infielder/pinch-runner in 2016.

The case against protecting: For starters, the Yankees don’t really have room on the 40-man roster for a player who isn’t projected to help in 2016. Also, Avelino’s good but not great production indicates he’d be overwhelmed at the MLB level at this point of his career. He’s of limited use right now — defense and running, that’s it. The Yankees would effectively be working with a 39-man roster next year.

RHP Johnny Barbato

The case for protecting: Every team needs bullpen help, and the 23-year-old Barbato managed a 3.19 ERA (3.45 FIP) with a 24.8 K% and a 9.2 BB% in 67.2 innings between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton in 2015. Barbato, who the Yankees acquired in the Shawn Kelley trade, is a mid-90s fastball/upper-70s curveball guy who has missed bats and had success at the highest levels of the minors. He is a prime piece of Rule 5 Draft fodder.

The case against protecting: The Yankees have approximately 67 right-handed relievers for the bullpen shuttle on the 40-man roster already. Okay, maybe not that many, but they have a lot. I count six and that’s just the righties. Obviously one or two of those guys could lose their 40-man spots in the roster crunch this winter, but there’s still plenty to go around. Is yet another righty reliever good use of a precious 40-man spot?

OF Jake Cave

The case for protecting: Cave, 22, has both tools and performance. He’s hit .285/.344/.386 (110 wRC+) in 266 games over the last two years, climbing from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton. Cave isn’t a huge power threat but he does almost everything else, including hit for average, draw walks, steal bases, and play capable defense in all three outfield spots. It’s not hard to see him in a fourth outfield role at the MLB level reasonably soon.

The case against protecting: As with Barbato and righty relievers, the Yankees are loaded with left-handed hitting outfielders. Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams are on the 40-man roster, and we can probably include Dustin Ackley in that group. The Yankees had enough lefty outfield depth that they traded Ramon Flores, who I think has a better long-term outlook than Heathcott or Williams. How many spots can you tie up with players who fill the same role?

RHP Rookie Davis

The case for protecting: Thanks to some mechanical tweaking, the 22-year-old Davis took a huge step forward with his control this year, cutting his walk rate to 4.7% of batters faced. He’s always had good stuff — low-to-mid-90s heater, curveball, changeup — but now he has the command to go with it. Davis had a 3.86 ERA (2.47 FIP) in 130.2 innings at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton this year.

The case against protecting: Davis has barely pitched above Single-A ball. He made only five starts (and one relief appearance) with the Thunder last this summer, throwing 33.1 innings. That’s all. Making the jump from limited Double-A time to the big leagues isn’t unprecedented, and it sure is easy for a bad team to hide someone like Davis in long relief, though chances are Davis won’t help the Yankees in 2016.

LHP Dietrich Enns

The case for protecting: Enns, 24, is a stats before scouting report guy. He returned from Tommy John surgery earlier this year and managed a 0.61 ERA (2.39 FIP) in 58.2 innings at mostly High-A Tampa. A total of 1,901 pitchers threw at least 50 innings in the minors this summer. None had a lower ERA than Enns. He’s a low-90s fastball, slider, changeup guy from the left side.

The case against protecting: Not counting Andrew Miller, who is in a league of his own, the Yankees have four optionable lefty relievers on the 40-man: Pazos, Jacob Lindgren, Chasen Shreve, and Justin Wilson. (I don’t think Wilson will ever be optioned, but you never know.) Enns will almost certainly be selected if he is exposed to the Rule 5 Draft — teams can’t help themselves when it comes to lefty relievers — but, for the Yankees, he would be nothing more than their fifth best lefty bullpen option on the 40-man.

Gamel. (Bill Tarutis/Times Leader )
Gamel. (Bill Tarutis/Times Leader )

OF Ben Gamel

The case for protecting: After spending a few years as an interesting prospect who was more tools than performance, Gamel broke out in 2015, hitting .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) at Triple-A with a farm system leading 52 extra-base hits. This was a guy who never slugged over .400 in a full season’s worth of playing time coming into the season. Gamel is also a solid defender in all three spots who can steal the occasional base. He could easily be someone’s fourth outfielder — or starting lefty platoon outfielder — come Opening Day. (I can’t help but notice GM Billy Eppler’s Angels need a low cost left-handed bat for left field.)

The case against protecting: The Yankees do have a number of upper level lefty hitting outfielders already on the 40-man roster, including a few guys with more tools and more two-way game than Gamel. Also, Gamel’s production is ahead of the scouting report. He had a marvelous year but isn’t believed to have the same explosive extra-base potential at the next level. Gamel might be something of a ‘tweener: not enough power for a corner and not enough defense for center.

LHP Chaz Hebert

The case for protecting: Hebert quietly had a breakout year. The team’s 27th round pick in the 2011 draft had a 2.55 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 134 innings at three levels this summer, including a few spot starts with Triple-A Scranton. Hebert had good strikeout (20.0%) and walk (5.6%) rates, and he’s a true four-pitch guy with a low-90s fastball, a changeup, a cutter, and a slider. Lefties with four pitches are pretty valuable, even if they only project to be back-end starters long-term. Even Vidal Nuno can get you a half-season of Brandon McCarthy, after all.

The case against protecting: Hebert, 23, was not much of a prospect prior to this season. In fact, this season was the first time the Yankees trusted him to be a regular starter for one of their affiliates. They sent Hebert to the Arizona Fall League to buy themselves more time to evaluate him, indicating they aren’t sold on his breakout just yet. Lefties are always good to have, but, like Enns, if he’s only going to be the fifth best southpaw option on the 40-man roster, Hebert might not be worth the spot.

IF Tony Renda

The case for protecting: The Yankees acquired the 24-year-old Renda from the Nationals for David Carpenter at midseason. He’s a contact freak, hitting .269/.330/.358 (100 wRC+) with more walks (8.1%) than strikeouts (7.3%) at Double-A this summer. Renda also has speed as well as the mobility and hands for the middle infield. The Yankees do not have a long-term second baseman — not until Ackley or Rob Refsnyder proves otherwise, anyway — and right now Renda is lined up to start the season in Triple-A, putting him on the cusp of helping the MLB team.

The case against protecting: Although he has good range and hands, Renda is a second baseman only because he doesn’t have the arm to handle shortstop on anything more than an emergency basis. Heck, he struggles with throws from second. Renda has zero power — six career homers in 1,944 plate appearances — and his walk rate may be the result of an experienced college hitter facing minor league hurlers with limited control. His throwing arm means he lacks the kind of versatility teams look for in Rule 5 Draft bench players.

* * *

OF Tyler Austin is also Rule 5 Draft eligible this offseason, though I didn’t include him above because he slipped through waivers unclaimed in September. Any team could have grabbed him then and not had to worry about the Rule 5 Draft roster rules. (Has to stay on the 25-man roster all year in 2016.) It didn’t happen so I assume Austin will be left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft this winter.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that sometimes the best way to keep a player is to leave him unprotected. If he’s not MLB ready, leave him off the 40-man roster, let him go through Spring Training and whatnot, then take him back when he doesn’t make the team. This is exactly what happened with Ivan Nova. Nova’s a big leaguer now, but he wasn’t in 2008, when the Padres grabbed him in the Rule 5 Draft. He got hammered in camp and was back with the Yankees before Opening Day.

The Yankees currently have 38 players on the 40-man roster, so they can add two Rule 5 Draft eligible players with no problem. Every additional player requires cutting someone loose, which is a real cost to the organization. If you’re adding a third player, you better be sure he’s better than the guy losing his spot. Time for a poll. Pick as many players as you like. (Click here to see the poll results.)

I didn’t include my Rule 5 Draft protection votes and explanations in the post because I tend to sway the vote, it seems. So vote first, then click this link to see what I’d do.

Carlos Correa named 2015 AL Rookie of the Year

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

Monday night, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa was named the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year, the BBWAA announced. He received 17 of 30 first place votes. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor was second in the voting and Twins third baseman Miguel Sano was a distant third. The full voting results are at the BBWAA’s site.

Correa, 21, hit .279/.345/.512 (133 wRC+) with 22 homers and 14 steals in 99 games after being called up in June. He led all AL rookies in homers and slugging percentage, among other things. Lindor, who received the other 13 first place votes, actually edged Correa in WAR (4.6 to 4.1) but he didn’t have the same power numbers, and much of that 4.6 WAR came from defense.

No Yankees received a Rookie of the Year vote this season. Correa and Lindor were in the top two spots on nearly every ballot, leaving the third spot for all other rookies. Luis Severino was New York’s only chance at a Rookie of the Year vote and it didn’t happen. Greg Bird didn’t play nearly enough games for serious consideration. So it goes.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was named NL Rookie of the Year unanimously. The Manager of the Year award will be announced Tuesday night. Joe Girardi is not a finalist but he has received at least one Manager of the Year vote every year since 2009.

The Yankees do not have any major awards finalists this year. I’m sure one or two guys receive down ballot votes though.

Monday Night Open Thread

Another offseason day is in the books, which means we’re that much closer to Spring Training. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve added a Spring Training countdown to the sidebar. Can’t miss it. Anyway, check out this Billy Witz article on the relationship between Brian Cashman and Dave Dombrowski. They’ve hooked up for many trades over the years (here’s the list), but now that Dombrowski is running the Red Sox, they’ve lost each other as trade partners.

This is your open thread for the evening. The Texans and Bengals will be on Monday Night Football, plus the Islanders are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games, the Cashman-Dombrowski article, or anything else right here.

Yankees finalize coaching staff, Mike Harkey returns as bullpen coach

(NY Times)
(NY Times)

The new bullpen coach is the old bullpen coach. The Yankees announced Monday evening that Mike Harkey has rejoined the team as the bullpen coach, replacing the departed Gary Tuck. Also, first base coach Tony Pena replaces Tuck as the team’s catching coordinator.

Harkey, 49, spent the last two seasons as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. He was let go a few weeks ago. Harkey, who is very close with Joe Girardi, was the Yankees bullpen coach from 2008-13 before leaving for the job in Arizona. Harkey pitched eight years in MLB before getting into coaching.

The coaching staff is now set. Alan Cockrell replaced Jeff Pentland as the main hitting coach and Marcus Thames was promoted from Triple-A to take over as assistant hitting coach a few weeks ago. Pena, bench coach Rob Thomson, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and third base Joe Espada remain.

Report: Yankees not willing to spend big on Ben Zobrist

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

It’s the offseason, which means the Yankees don’t want to trade their best prospects, don’t want to spend big on free agents, and don’t want to surrender their first round pick. They like their team and are comfortable with their roster. It’s the same stuff we hear every winter and no, it’s not always true. There’s just nothing better to say without being self-defeating.

So, naturally, the Yankees say they’re not willing to meet Ben Zobrist’s asking price this offseason, report Dan Martin and Ken Davidoff. New York tried to acquire Zobrist from the Athletics at the trade deadline but balked at Oakland’s asking price: Rob Refsnyder and Adam Warren. Martin and Davidoff say the Mets are more likely to pursue Zobrist than the Yankees.

Zobrist, 34, hit .276/.359/.450 (123 wRC+) with 13 home runs and more walks (11.6%) than strikeouts (10.5%) in 535 plate appearances for the A’s and Royals this past season. He also missed a few weeks due to minor knee surgery. Zobrist played second base, third base, and the two outfield corners in 2015. He’s played shortstop and center field as recently as 2014.

Brian Cashman said the Yankees are seeking “more balance” at second base, which means if they do make a move, it’ll be for a more well-rounded player than Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley. They have offense first second basemen. Zobrist certainly fits given his strong defense, and his versatility means he could play pretty much anywhere. Every team has a need for a guy like Zobrist.

For what it’s worth, the FanGraphs crowd projects Zobrist to get three years and $42M. MLBTR projects three years and $51M. There is no draft pick involved — Zobrist was ineligible for the qualifying offer because he was traded at midseason — so it’s a straight cash deal. The Yankees have plenty of cash. They just want people to think they don’t.

Zobrist has slowed down a bit offensively the last few years and he is entering his mid-30s, so I certainly understand any hesitation to pay him $14M+ a year for the next few years. At the same time, it’s a relatively short-term deal, and Zobrist would add a ton of much-needed flexibility to the roster.

Kimbrel trade shows Yankees smart to listen to offers for Andrew Miller

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Late last week, the Padres started their payroll purge by trading their top two relievers. Joaquin Benoit and his $8M salary went to the Mariners for two prospects, then, on Friday, Craig Kimbrel and the $25.5M left on his contract were shipped to the Red Sox for four prospects. Just like that, Padres GM A.J. Preller shed $19.5M in 2016 salary.

By all accounts the Red Sox gave up a significant package to get Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in the game. ranked OF Manuel Margot and SS Javier Guerra as the 25th and 76th best prospects in baseball, respectively. OF Aaron Judge and SS Jorge Mateo are ranked 17th and 87th, for comparison. Keith Law (subs. req’d) said he views both Margot and Guerra as top 50 prospects.

Furthermore, Alex Speier said he ranked LHP Logan Allen as the 12th best prospect in Boston’s system in the upcoming 2016 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. IF Carlos Asuaje, the fourth piece heading to San Diego, is not a top or even mid-range prospect, but he is a big league ready utility man who Padres GM A.J. Preller confirmed will be given every opportunity to win a roster spot in Spring Training.

So that’s two top 100 position player prospects, a strong lefty pitching prospect, and a big league ready utility man for two guaranteed years of Kimbrel plus an option for a third. And the Red Sox took on his remaining salary. Prospects are prospects, and there’s a chance the Padres get nothing out of this trade, but at this very moment it looks like they landed themselves quite a haul.

And that is exactly why the Yankees are smart to listen to trade offers for closer Andrew Miller, as they have reportedly done this offseason. Seeing Miller’s name on the block was a bit surprising, but deep down we all know everyone is available for the right price. It would take a lot to trade Miller — one report indicated the Yankees want three young MLB ready players — for obvious reasons. After all, the Kimbrel deal shows the trade value of elite relievers.

The Kimbrel trade also means one less elite closer is on the trade market for teams to consider. There are none in free agency — not unless you really love 33-year-old Darren O’Day going forward — and Aroldis Chapman is the best on the trade block. Others like Mark Melancon and Ken Giles could be available too. But, aside from the pre-arbitration-eligible Giles, Miller has by far the most favorable remaining contract situation among top reliever trade chips.

Chapman and Melancon will be free agents next winter after earning huge salaries next season. (MLBTR projects $10M for Melancon and $12.9M for Chapman.) Miller is owed $9M per year for the next three years. He’ll earn approximately as much from 2016-18 that Kimbrel is guaranteed from 2016-17. And the performance is very comparable. Here’s the last two seasons:

Andrew Miller Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel is widely considered the best closer in baseball and he’s earned that reputation the last few years. On a rate basis though, Miller has been every bit as good — if not better, really — as Kimbrel the last two seasons. Heck, you could argue the Red Sox just traded four prospects to get Kimbrel to make up for the mistake of not re-signing Miller a year ago.

Anyway, the point is both Miller and Kimbrel are excellent relievers, among the four or five best in the world. Kimbrel was just traded for a monster prospect package, so it makes sense for the Yankees to at least listen to offers for Miller. Plenty of teams are seeking bullpen help. (Plenty really means every, in this case.) The Yankees don’t have to trade Miller. Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t listen though.

I think the Kimbrel trade was something of a perfect storm. The Padres wanted to cut payroll and the Red Sox are trying to get out of last place and back into contention, so there’s a sense of urgency. They hired Dave Dombrowski to run the front office this summer, and Dombrowski is known to target big name players and use his prospects as trade currency, not to fill the big league roster. Everything all came together for this trade.

The Yankees might not find that perfect storm trade for Miller. I’m sure they’ll field plenty of offers for the lefty. The question is can they get what they want? Remember, the Yankees plan to contend next year. They’re rebuilding on the fly. They’re getting younger and trying to stay relevant too. Not every rebuild as to be an Astros style total tear down. That is one way rebuilt. It is not the way to do it.

Trading Miller for prospects makes the Yankees worse in 2016 (and 2017?) and possibly better long-term, but the Yankees don’t want to be worse next year. That’s why they’re said to be seeking MLB ready players in any trade. If they don’t get a package to their liking, they’ll simply keep Miller. After all, if the Yankees didn’t have Miller and another team made him available, wouldn’t we want the Yankees to go after him?

Thanks in part to the Royals, bullpens have become a major focal point the last few years. Starters are throwing fewer innings and the need for multiple high end relievers has become a necessity for contention, not a luxury. Teams are paying big for bullpen help — look at the Kimbrel trade and look at Miller’s contract too, it smashed records for a non-closing reliever — and it’s possible some team will pay big for Miller, in a way that improves the 2016 Yankees.