Rosenthal: Tigers asked about Andrew Miller before K-Rod trade

"Trade rumors are dumb." (Patrick Smith/Getty)
“Trade rumors are dumb.” (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Earlier today the Tigers made a move in hopes of improving their perpetually shaky bullpen, acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers for an infield prospect. K-Rod, who is somehow still only 33, had a 2.21 ERA (2.91 FIP) in 57 innings this past season. There is $9.5M left on his contract and the last thing a rebuilding team like the Brewers needs is an expensive closer.

A few hours before the trade Ken Rosenthal reported the Tigers had inquired about the availability of Andrew Miller, though they weren’t comfortable with the asking price. Rosenthal says the Tigers are not eager to move the players they acquired in the David Price and Yoenis Cespedes trades, who are basically their top prospects. Detroit also checked in on Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees are said to be “shopping everyone,” and it makes sense to at least see what the market is for Miller given the haul the Padres received for Craig Kimbrel last week. In addition to the Tigers, the Diamondbacks have also asked about Miller in recent weeks. I’m sure a bunch of other clubs have as well. High-end relievers are always in demand. The asking price is high and it should be. Also, for what it’s worth:

I suppose it’s possible the Yankees and Tigers could rekindle their Miller trade talks at some point — after all, the Tigers need relievers, plural — though unless the Yankees lower their asking price, I don’t think it’ll happen. And there’s no reason to lower the asking price. Miller’s great and his contract isn’t onerous. If he were on another team and being shopped, we’d want the Yankees to get him.

The Yankees tend to keep things pretty close to the vest — the Aaron Hicks trade came of nowhere, for example — and the fact all these Miller rumors are leaking leads me to believe there are no serious talks. If things go quiet, it could either mean they’re in serious talks or nothing is going on. I guess that’s part of the intrigue. We’ll see.

Prospect Profile: James Kaprielian

(Staten Island Advance)
(Staten Island Advance)

James Kaprielian | RHP

Kaprielian is a Southern California kid who was born in Orange County and grew up in Tustin. He played football as well as three years of varsity baseball at Beckman High School, going 33-3 with a 0.96 ERA overall. Kaprielian threw eleven shutouts and two no-hitters in his career, and he didn’t walk a batter his junior year. “He was a special player to get to coach,” said coach Zach Reeder to Tim Burt.

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Kaprielian as the 73rd best prospect in the 2012 draft, though bonus demands and a strong commitment to UCLA caused him to fall to the 40th round, when the Mariners grabbed him. Kaprielian did not sign out of high school and instead went to college. By the way, his name is pronounced “ka-pril-ian.”

As a freshman, Kaprielian had a 1.55 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 24 walks in 40.2 innings across 34 relief appearances. He pitched for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League after the season, where he posted a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings. He struck out 28 and participated in the league All-Star Game.

The Bruins moved Kaprielian into the rotation his sophomore year and he immediately took over as their Friday night starter. He blossomed into one of the best starters in the nation, pitching to a 2.29 ERA with a conference leading 108 strikeouts and 34 walks in 15 starts and 106 innings. That performance earned him All-Pac-12 honors.

Kaprielian pitched for the US Collegiate National Team during the summer and struck out a dozen in six shutout innings against Chinese Taipei. He pitched soon after losing his mother to breast cancer and his effort was recognized as the USA Baseball International Performance of the Year.

Kaprielian had a 2.02 ERA with 114 strikeouts and 33 walks in 106.2 innings spread across 16 starts and one relief appearance as a junior this spring, earning him Second Team All-American honors. On May 15th, he threw nine no-hit innings against Arizona in the first no-hitter in UCLA history. (They won in ten innings.)

Prior to the 2015 draft, Baseball America and Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Kaprielian as the 19th and 27th best prospect in the draft class, respectively. The Yankees, who were linked to Kaprielian all spring, grabbed him with their first round pick, the 16th overall selection. He signed a few days before the deadline for a $2.65M bonus, slightly more than the $2.43M slot value.

Pro Debut
UCLA’s season ended June 1st and Kaprielian didn’t sign until July 15th, so the Yankees eased him into things to start his pro debut. He made two quick tune-up appearances with the Rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees before moving up to Short Season Staten Island, where he made three more starts. Kaprielian allowed six runs (five earned) on ten hits and four walks in 11.1 innings in his pro debut. He fanned 14.

The Yankees turned Kaprielian loose during the NY-Penn League postseason. He made two starts for the Staten Island Yanks in the playoffs and they were both great: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K in the first one, then 6.1 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 6 K in the second one. The Baby Bombers were swept in the Championship series but Kaprielian, who started Game One in both postseason series, was pretty great. Between college and pro ball, Kaprielian threw 130.1 total innings in 2015. He then participated in Instructional League after the season.

Scouting Report
At 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., Kaprielian is a big and sturdy guy with an ideal pitcher’s frame. He has the basic four-pitch mix — fastball, curveball, slider, changeup — and he uses all four pitches regularly. This isn’t a guy with a show-me changeup or something like that. Kaprielian has good feel for each of his pitches and all four are weapons. His deep arsenal is the reason he was fifth pitcher taken in this summer’s draft.

Kaprielian’s fastball sat 90-93 mph for most of his college career before jumping to 92-95 mph with a few 96s late this spring. He sustained his newfound velocity in his pro debut as well. Depending on the day, either the curveball or slider is Kaprielian’s best breaking ball, though both are above-average pitches. The slider is a mid-80s offering with short and sharp break, so much so that it almost looks like a cutter. The curve mostly sits in the 78-82 mph range and Kaprielian can throw it for strikes or bury it in the dirt for swings and misses.

The changeup is Kaprielian’s fourth pitch and was a point of emphasis after turning pro. The Yankees had him throw it a bunch with Staten Island and it’s really more of a circle change with tumbling action in the low-80s. He tends to spike it in the dirt when he misses. Kaprielian’s command rates as above-average and he pitches aggressively, going after hitters rather than nibbling and trying to set them up.

Kaprielian’s delivery is not textbook — he lifts his leg up then brings it down before striding forward, and his shoulders dip along with his lower half — but it’s not violent or anything that needs to be changed. It’s almost like a halfway drop-and-drive delivery. The Yankees really value good makeup and it’s no coincidence Kaprielian drew raves for his maturity and work ethic at UCLA.

2016 Outlook
After three years in the Pac-12, including the last two as the best starting pitcher in the conference, Kaprielian is on the very fast track. He’s ready for High-A Tampa and his time there may be brief. As a four-pitch guy with command and maturity, Kaprielian could jump on the Ian Kennedy track and make his MLB debut late in 2016. Kennedy made ten starts with High-A Tampa, nine with Double-A Trenton, six with Triple-A Scranton, then three with the Yankees in 2007, his first full pro season. Even if Kaprielian doesn’t make his MLB debut in 2016, he should be a big league option no later than the first half of 2017. This isn’t a guy you draft in the middle of the first round then hold back in the minors. Kaprielian’s potential to move very quickly was part of his appeal at the time of the draft.

My Take
I really like Kaprielian and think he got a raw deal from may fans at the time of the draft, being labeled low upside and things like that. If the velocity spike is legit — he held it from spring all through the summer in pro ball — Kaprielian has significant ceiling and could pitch near the front of a big league rotation. Even if the velocity increase doesn’t last and he reverts back to 90-93 mph, he’s still a no doubt starter with the frame to be a workhorse. The Yankees have started to lean on their farm system a little more and I’m excited to see Kaprielian cut through the minors quickly and make his debut as soon as next season.

The Ups and Downs of Masahiro Tanaka [2015 Season Review]


Last season Masahiro Tanaka was everything the Yankees hoped he would be after handing him a massive seven-year, $155M contract. He was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, both in terms of traditional stats and advanced stats. Tanaka was selected to the All-Star Game and a candidate to start, and he was very much in the AL Cy Young conversation.

It all came to a crashing halt in late-June, when Tanaka felt a twinge in his elbow and missed three months with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. The rest and rehab protocol worked and Tanaka made two starts at the end of the season because why not? Additional rest wasn’t going to help, the doctors said. The Yankees didn’t want the elbow to give out, but, if it did, they wanted it to happen late in 2014 rather than early 2015.

The elbow injury lingered over Tanaka all summer in 2015. Every time he had a bad start — heck, every time he made a bad pitch — there were questions about the health of his elbow. It was unavoidable. The elbow stayed intact this past season, though Tanaka’s performance was not as excellent as his rookie season. He was occasionally good, occasionally bad, and mostly in between.

A Healthy Spring, Please

I still haven’t forgotten how I felt watching Tanaka’s first Grapefruit League start. I remember figuratively sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for him to throw a pitch, grab his elbow, and walk off the mound. It was gross. After the injury last season, it felt like only a matter of time until the elbow blew out for good.

That never happened. Tanaka went through Spring Training with no issues. He made four Grapefruit League starts plus one more in a minor league game, allowing five runs (four earned) in 14.2 innings. Tanaka struck out 13 and walked one. That is pretty damn good. That anxiousness watching him pitch and waiting for his elbow to give out still existed, but it started to fade, at least for me.

“I feel good that I was able to come through camp healthy, right now. So that being said, yeah, I am a bit relieved,” said Tanaka to reporters following his final spring start.

Four & Out

For the first time in six years, someone other than CC Sabathia started Opening Day for the Yankees. Joe Girardi & Co. tabbed Tanaka for the Opening Day start and it didn’t go well: five runs (four earned) in four innings against the Blue Jays. Tanaka struck out six and walked two. A two-run Edwin Encarnacion homer was the big blow.

Tanaka’s second start wasn’t much better. He allowed four runs (three earned) in five innings against the Red Sox, this time allowing a solo home run to Hanley Ramirez. Tanaka fanned four and struck out three. He walked five batters in his first two starts of 2015. It wasn’t until his sixth start last year that Tanaka walked his fifth batter of the season.

Needless to say, the back-to-back poor starts to open the season led to questions about Tanaka’s health and his effectiveness with a compromised elbow. They were absolutely fair questions to ask given the circumstances. Then, in his third start of the season, Tanaka manhandled the Rays, holding them to two hits in seven shutout innings. He struck out eight and walked none.

That was the Tanaka we saw for much of the first half last year. He recorded strikeouts on his fastball, slider, and splitter, pitched quickly and efficiency, and had the Rays completely off balance. When Tanaka is at his best, he’s totally unpredictable. He throws anything at any time.

Tanaka started again five days later and again pitched well, holding the Tigers to one run on three hits and two walks in 6.1 innings. So despite those rough first two starts, Tanaka owned a 3.22 ERA and held hitters to a .175/.236/.313 batting line in his first four starts. It was uneven — two bad starts, two great starts — but it was still early.

The Injury We Didn’t Expect

After those first four starts, Tanaka landed on the 15-day DL with a mild right forearm strain. He reportedly felt a little something down near his wrist, the Yankees sent him for tests, and shut him down. The plan was no throwing for 7-10 days, then a throwing program. There was no firm timetable for his return but Brian Cashman guessed it would be a month or so.

“Let’s conservatively just throw a month out there until we get him back in the rotation,” said the GM. “It could be sooner, but he’s a starter. You’ve got to build him back up. You shut him down. At the very least, 7-10 days of no throwing, and that’s the least, so it could be more. When he feels better, we’ll get him going. You get him on a throwing program, then you get him back on the mound as long as all that goes fine. Then he’s got to get his pitch count back up, get him back into rehab games. Because he’s a starter, it’s a little bit more time because of that.”


The Yankees placed Tanaka on the 15-day DL on April 28th and he resumed throwing on May 7th. It wasn’t much — 50 throws at 60 feet — but it was something. The throwing program continued with no problems and Tanaka was able to make his first official minor league rehab start on May 21st, less than a month after getting hurt. He made another rehab start six days later and that was it. Two starts and he was back in the rotation.

It goes without saying everyone assumed the worst when Tanaka was first placed on the DL. That’s how it is with every injury. Guy pulls up lame running to first base? That’s a blown hammy he’ll be out six months. Outfielder crashes into the wall? That’s a separated shoulder we’ll see him next year. Pitcher goes down with a forearm injury? Schedule the Tommy John surgery. That Tanaka had the elbow trouble last year didn’t help matters.

Instead, the injury was nothing more than what the team said it was, a mild forearm strain. Tanaka was back in a month, as expected. It was curiously accordingly to plan. That’s … weird. It doesn’t usually happen like that.

Return of the Ace

Tanaka was as good as it gets after coming off the DL. He made his first start back on June 3rd and struck out nine Mariners in seven innings. They scored one run on three hits and no walks. Six days later he held the Nationals to one run in seven innings. He stuck out six and walked none. The run was a Bryce Harper solo homer which, you know, happens. Six days after that Tanaka allowed two runs in seven innings against the Marlins.

So, in his first three starts back from the injury, Tanaka allowed four runs on 17 hits in 21 innings. He walked no one. Literally zero walks against 21 strikeouts. Go back to his two starts before landing on the DL and Tanaka had allowed five runs on 22 hits and two walks in his previous 34.1 innings. The Yankees were scoring a boatload runs and the guy they effectively designated their ace before the season was pitching like an ace. It was wonderful.

Tanaka had back-to-back rough starts on June 21st and 27th, first allowing seven runs (five earned) in five innings against the Tigers, then allowing six runs in five innings against the Astros. He allowed three home runs in each start. The home runs were definitely a problem. Tanaka gave up some dingers last year but was giving them up even more often this past season. Even when he was pitching well, it seemed like he allowed one #obligatoryhomer per start.

The two bad starts were just that, two bad starts. They didn’t lead to a DL stint or an extended slump. Tanaka rebounded from the back-to-back duds and pitched well pretty much the rest of the season. From that point on, he posted a 3.31 ERA (3.96 FIP) in 15 starts and 100.2 innings. Homers (1.34 HR/9 and 16.3 HR/FB%) were still a problem, but Tanaka was missing bats (21.3%), limiting walks (4.3%), and keeping the ball on the ground (48.1%).

The Blue Jays eventually passed the Yankees in the AL East, mostly because they won nine of 13 games against New York in the second half. Tanaka was pretty much the only starter the Yankees had who could put up a fight against the high-powered Toronto offense. He made three starts against the Blue Jays in the second half: 22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 20 K. That includes a complete game win on August 15th.

Aside from missing a start in September because he felt a tug in his hamstring running out a bunt, Tanaka stayed healthy after returning from the forearm issue in June. The Yankees did whatever they could to ensure he had an extra day of rest whenever possible too. Tanaka made 24 starts in 2015 and only five came on normal rest. He had at least one extra day for the other 19 starts.

Three of those five starts with normal rest came in September, when the Yankees were fighting for the AL East title and later a wildcard spot. Tanaka was pitching well and they needed him out there as often as possible. Expanded rosters meant they had spot starter options if they wanted to give him extra rest, but they opted to use Tanaka on normal rest three times. They protected him all season then turned him loose when they needed him the most.

Tanaka finished the regular season with a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings. He had great strikeout (22.8%) and walk (4.4%) numbers, a good grounder rate (47.0%), and awful homer rates (1.46 HR/9 and 16.9 HR/FB%). Eighty-nine pitchers threw at least 150 innings in 2014 and only eight allowed home runs at a greater rate than Tanaka. At the same time, he had the sixth lowest walk and second highest chase rate. Only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%) generated more swings on pitches out of the zone than Tanaka (38.6%).

The Yankees selected Tanaka to start the wildcard game because he was clearly the best option. The only viable alternative was Luis Severino, and that went out the window when he started on the penultimate day of the regular season. Tanaka allowed two runs — solo homers, of course — in five innings in the wildcard game loss. It wasn’t a great start by any means, but maybe score some runs? Tanaka wasn’t the reason the team’s season ended that night.

The Home Run Problem

Like I said, Tanaka gave up a lot of home runs this season. Twenty-five, in fact. Here is a breakdown of the dingers:

Solo homers: 19
Multi-run homers: 6 (five two-run, one three-run)
Homers at home: 17
Homers on the road: 8
Homers by a righty: 12
Homers by a lefty: 13
Average distance: 404.6 feet (31st longest in MLB among 125 pitchers with 10+ homers allowed)

Anecdotally, Tanaka gets away with a lot of mistake pitches, and I attribute that to his general unpredictability. We see hitters swing through a lot of hanging sliders and things like that, and that’s because they’re looking for splitters down in the dirt and get caught off guard.

At the same time, when hitters do catch up to one of Tanaka’s mistakes, they crush it. They don’t hit a line drive single or rip a ball into the gap. It goes over the fence. Here are the pitch types and locations of Tanaka’s 25 homers in 2015:

Masahiro Tanaka home run locations

That’s a lot of belt high pitches over the middle of the plate. Most of the homers came on some kind of fastball too, a four-seamer or cutter or sinker. There’s a few sliders and splitters in there but most are heaters.

Tanaka gave up a league average amount of homers last season (0.99 HR/9) and I think he’s always going to be homer prone. Hopefully not as homer prone as he was this past season, I’d rather him be closer to 2012, but Tanaka’s pitching style seems conducive to dingers. He doesn’t have a huge fastball and he throws so many offspeed pitches that he inevitably hangs a few. Yankee Stadium doesn’t help either.

The silver lining is Tanaka’s ability to limit base-runners. He actually led all AL pitchers (min. 150 IP) with a 0.994 WHIP — Dallas Keuchel was second at 1.017 — because he doesn’t walk anyone and he’s generally hard to hit. Tanaka held opponents to a .221 AVG and a .242 BABIP this year. (.240 AVG and .299 BABIP last year.) There’s a reason 19 of those 25 homers were solo shots. He doesn’t put many guys on base to start with. (He only hit one batter too.)

Before & After

A partially torn elbow ligament is a serious injury. Most of the time it leads to Tommy John surgery and it still might for Tanaka, but he made it through 2015 in one piece. Most pitchers who attempt to rehab the injury don’t even make it back on the mound. The rehab doesn’t work and they go under the knife before picking up a ball.

As soon as he returned to the mound last season, Tanaka was way ahead of the game. He was one of the exceptions and continues to be. Tanaka is looking more like Adam Wainwright, who pitched five years with a partially torn ligament before needing surgery, and Ervin Santana, who has been pitching with a partial tear for years now, than guys like Matt Harvey, Drew Hutchison, and Cory Luebke. Those guys got hurt, tried to rehab, then had surgery because the rehab didn’t take.

Now, that said, Tanaka’s elbow has physically changed. His elbow ligament has been compromised to a reportedly small degree, but compromised nonetheless. I spent a whole bunch of time clicking around on Brooks Baseball, so here’s some PitchFX data comparing pre-injury Tanaka to 2015 Tanaka.

Average Velocity

Masahiro Tanaka velocity

There was a time very early this season when Tanaka was leaning on his offspeed pitches, weirdly leading many to say he was protecting his elbow by not throwing fastballs. That seemed completely backwards. A pitcher worried about his elbow would throw more fastballs and fewer breaking balls, not vice versa. There has been all sorts of research showing breaking stuff is more hazardous to the elbow than heaters. It was … weird.

Anyway, Tanaka’s average velocities held pretty steady this year, includes his various fastballs and trademark splitter. In fact, his velocity improved this year. (He added almost three miles an hour to his curveball!) I was curious to see the velocity comparison and I’m relieved to see nothing that worries me. Next.

Pitch Selection

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selection

Woof. What a mess of a graph. Blame Tanaka for throwing so many different types of pitches. I wanted to looked at his game-by-game pitch selection graph to see what kind of changes Tanaka made this year. It’s going to change from start to start of course, but I wanted to see if there were any significant changes after the elbow injury and after the forearm injury this year.

Instead, it looks like Tanaka leaned heavily on his splitter and slider down the stretch, which is what I boxed out in the graph. He didn’t shelve his fastball, no pitcher can do that and succeed, but Tanaka really emphasized the slider and splitter late in the season. Again, that goes against what you’d expect from a pitcher with an elbow ligament issue. If he was worried about the elbow, you’d think the last thing he would do is throw so many splitters and sliders. Weird.

Anyway, there doesn’t appear to be any significant difference in Tanaka’s overall pitch selection after the elbow injury. I was looking to see if he scaled back on his splitter or stopped throwing his slider, something like that. That didn’t appear to be the case while watching Tanaka pitch this summer and the PitchFX data backs it up. Tanaka threw everything.

Release Point

Masahiro Tanaka vertical release pointTanaka’s release point gradually dropped as the season progressed. It dropped significantly in his fourth start of the season, the one prior to his DL stint, which I guess makes sense. But even after he returned, it gradually got lower and lower. The difference between April and September is about 4.5 inches.

It’s not unheard of for a pitcher’s arm to drop as the season progresses — everyone’s release point drops over time — and it’s mostly a fatigue thing. They get tired as the innings build up and they aren’t strong enough to keep the same arm slot. Tanaka has thrown a lot of innings in his career, and while he didn’t see his arm slot drop last season, we have to remember he missed almost the entire second half.

It is definitely possible the partially torn ligament contributed to Tanaka’s falling arm slot, though I don’t think we can say that with any certainty. It could be fatigue. Tanaka pitched only half a season last year and the Yankees gave him a ton of time off between starts this season. Maybe it was too much. I’m not really sure. I consider this a red flag because I’m not sure what else to consider it. Sweeping it under the rug seems wrong. Let’s see what happens next year.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery after the season, but not Tommy John surgery. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Apparently it’s been in there since his time in Japan. Who knows how long that was bothering him this year. He’s not having the surgery just because. It didn’t bother him in the past but bothered him enough this year to have it taken out.

Anyway, Tanaka is expected to be ready in time for Spring Training and I’m sure the Yankees will treat him the same way next season. That means extra rest whenever possible — on paper, they have better rotation depth than they did last year, but who knows what things will look like in April and May — and another Opening Day start. Tanaka remains the team’s best starting pitcher.

Devil’s Advocate: Reasons the Yankees should trade Brett Gardner

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

Once again, there has been a lot of talking about a possible a Brett Gardner trade this offseason. It’s been going on for a few years now, mostly because he is one of the few players on the roster with actual trade value. He’s the only veteran Yankee making real money with any sort of trade value. People like to talk trades and Gardner’s tradeable.

We’ve already heard the Yankees have discussed Gardner with the Mariners, though it sounds like those talks were preliminary more than anything. (Seattle’s recent Leonys Martin pickup may end those talks.) There’s been speculation other clubs like the Angels, Cubs, Nationals, Tigers, and even the Mets could be suitors for Gardner. Lots of contending clubs — and that’s Gardner’s market, teams trying to contend, there’s no reason for rebuilding clubs to get him — have a need in the outfield.

Even with his second half slump, Gardner was one of the Yankees’ best players this past season, hitting .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) with 16 home runs and 20 steals in 151 games. Only 15 players in baseball had 15+ homers and 15+ steals in 2015. Gardner was one of ’em. I have a tough time seeing how the Yankees could trade Gardner and actually improve, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring.

As with any player, the Yankees are smart to listen to offers to Gardner. You never know when a team may be desperate and willing to overpay. (Overpay in your eyes, anyway.) Although I’m not necessarily hoping the Yankees trade Gardner, there are reasons it could be a good idea. Here are four in no particular order.

Avoid Decline Years

Gardner turned 32 in late-August and plays a hard-nosed style, so much so the Yankees are reportedly worried he wears himself out over the long season each year, leading to his second half slumps. His offensive production has actually held fairly steady since becoming a full-time player in 2010 …

Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

… though normal age-related decline figures to set in fairly soon, if it hasn’t already. Also, Gardner’s defense is not as strong as it once was. Both the eye test and stats confirm that. Gardner is still a really good defender, he’s hardly a liability out there, but he’s closer to league average than elite at this point.

And, of course, there’s the decline in stolen bases, which is pretty normal. Gardner swiped 47 and 49 bases in 2010 and 2011, respectively, missed most of 2012 due to an elbow injury, and has hovered around 20 steals a year from 2013-15. Stolen bases tend to peak very early in a player’s career, so it’s no surprise he isn’t stealing as many bases as he once did.

Gardner right now is still a really good player. He’s solidly above-average overall and is arguably the best all-around player on the Yankees. He’s no worse than their what, third best all-around player? That’s right now though. What about next year and the year after that and the year after that, all of which are guaranteed under his contract?

Gardner will decline at some point because all players decline at some point. The Yankees have almost certainly gotten the best years of his career and now they may be in position to avoid his decline phase — decline is not always gradual, remember — through a trade.

Shed Salary

I absolutely hate the idea of the Yankees shedding salary in order to make other moves, especially since payroll has not increased significantly over the last decade even though the new Yankee Stadium opened six years ago, but that’s the world we live in. Gardner is owed $38M over the next three seasons, including the $2M buyout of his $12.5M club option for 2016.

That’s not a huge contract — 18 outfielders have contracts with a higher average annual value, and a few more will join the list this winter — but it’s not nothing either. Shedding the $13M or so they owe Gardner each of the next three years means more money for … whatever. Pitching, second base, more outfielders, whatever. There are lots of ways to spend $13M annually and the Yankees certainly have no shortage of needs. Moving Gardner saves real dollars that can be put to use elsewhere.

Clear A Spot For Hicks & Co.

Late last week the Yankees acquired Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitter with center field defensive chops who Brian Cashman called “an everyday player.” Except he won’t be an everyday player, at least not with the roster as it currently stands. Gardner is locked into left field while Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran are set to again play center and right, respectively.

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

Trading Gardner clears up left field for Hicks — I’d be favor of playing Hicks in center and Ellsbury in left, but that ain’t happening — and allows him to play everyday. Also, the Yankees have some outfield talent in Triple-A they could also explore. We saw Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams last year, and there’s also Aaron Judge and Ben Gamel (and Jake Cave) in Triple-A.

The long-term potential of those other outfielders is up for debate — Hicks appears to be on the verge of a breakout, but who knows about the other guys — but the Yankees are never going to know what they have until they give them a chance. Trading Gardner clears left field and allows the Yankees to use Hicks, Heathcott, Judge, whoever. It creates more roster flexibility, basically. And it also allows them to potentially add some more balance to the lineup with a righty hitter.

Talent Infusion

There are an awful lot of good outfielders on the market this offseason. I mean some of the best in the game. So why would a team give up players to trade for Gardner when they could simply pay money for a free agent? Because look at some of these projected prices (via FanGraphs Crowdsourcing):

  • Jason Heyward, age 26: Eight years and $184M.
  • Yoenis Cespedes, age 30: Six years and $132M.
  • Justin Upon, age 28: Six years and $120M.
  • Alex Gordon, age 31: Five years and $90M.
  • Dexter Fowler, age 29: Four years and $56M.

Suddenly three years and $38M for Gardner doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Point is, those guys are going to make major bucks, and not every team can afford them. Among the second tier outfield targets are Denard Span, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra, and Nori Aoki. Span and Aoki were hurt this year, Jackson wasn’t very good, and Parra’s track record as a hitter isn’t nearly as good as Gardner’s.

Mid-market teams that can’t sink $18M+ annually into an outfielder and don’t want to give up a draft pick are left to either sign a second tier free agent or trade for someone like Gardner, who has a strong track record and has succeeded in the tough AL East battles, which teams value. Plus the Yankees could also pay down part of his contract to make him even more affordable.

That’s the long way of saying Gardner figures to have plenty suitors this offseason and could bring back a nice package of players. Nothing that’ll alter the direction of the franchise, but it wouldn’t be a straight salary dump either. One year of Fowler netted Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. Two years of Seth Smith landed a high-end reliever (Brandon Mauer). A year and a half of Parra returned two solid prospects (last year’s trade). Heck, one year of Shin-Soo Choo fetched Didi Gregorius a few years back.

The Yankees are in the middle of this rebuilding on the fly thing and chances are they won’t seek prospects in return for Gardner. Prospects may be part of the package, sure, but I’m guessing they’ll want at least one player they can plug directly into their MLB roster. That’s the way they’ve been operating over the last year. MLB player for MLB player trades. Gardner could bring back two or even three young players who better fit the Yankees long-term.

* * *

I don’t love the idea of trading Gardner but the Yankees are not wrong to explore it. Far from it. It’s Cashman’s job to explore every possible way to improve the team, and sometimes that can be accomplished by trading one of the better players on the roster. Trading Gardner could help the Yankees avoid his decline years, shed some salary, and create more roster flexibility by clearing a spot for young players and adding more talent to the organization. It’s definitely something to consider.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

According to Ken Rosenthal, David Ortiz is planning to retire following the 2016 season. That dude has crushed the Yankees for more than a decade now and I won’t miss him. He’s a Hall of Famer though. No doubt about it in my mind. Whether Ortiz actually gets in is another matter. A worthy foe, indeed.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all playing, plus there’s a bunch of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here.

Jeff Banister named 2015 AL Manager of the Year; Girardi finishes fifth in voting

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Tuesday night, MLB and the BBWAA announced Rangers skipper Jeff Banister has won the 2015 AL Manager of the Year award. Astros manager A.J. Hinch finished second and Twins manager Paul Molitor finished third. All three guys were in their first seasons on the job. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was named NL Manager of the Year.

Joe Girardi finished fifth in the voting, receiving two first place votes and two third place votes. He was behind Banister, Hinch, Molitor, and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. Girardi, who won the 2006 NL Manager of the Year award with the Marlins, has received at least one Manager of the Year vote every year since 2009.

The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site. The Manager of the Year has morphed into the “manager whose team most exceeds expectations” award, and, well, the Yankees are always expected to win. Joe Torre in 1996 and 1998 is the last New York manager to win the award.

The Rookie of the Year was announced Monday. The Cy Young will be announced Wednesday and the MVP follows Thursday. The Yankees do not have any finalists this year but I’m sure some players received down-ballot votes. They always do.

New approach and leg kick are reasons to believe Aaron Hicks is on the verge of a breakout

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Late last week the Yankees made their first significant move of the offseason, trading backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks. The team has some depth at catcher — Gary Sanchez‘s breakout summer sure helped matters — and needed an outfielder, particularly someone who can hit lefties and play strong defense.

Hick does both of those things. He has long been considered a standout gloveman in center field — Hicks is the best outfield defender in the organization right now — and this past season he hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against southpaws. That’s pretty great. At the very least, Hicks is a fine replacement for Chris Young, who is reportedly seeking a starting job this offseason.

The Yankees don’t view Hicks merely as Young’s replacement, however. They believe he has the potential to be more than that in the future. Brian Cashman called him an “everyday player” at the GM Meetings last week, and while there is no obvious starting spot for Hicks on next year’s team at the moment, there figures to be a way to get him 350+ at-bats. After all, Young batted 356 times in 2015.

The Twins jerked Hicks around the last few years, calling him up and sending him down multiple times. He started this past season in Triple-A, came up for four weeks in May and June, went back to Triple-A for three weeks, then came back up for good in early-July. Part of that was Hicks’ fault — he would have stuck around longer had he performed better — but Minnesota didn’t show much patience.

Hicks hit .259/.333/.432 (109 wRC+) with ten homers and a 16.8% strikeout rate in 291 plate appearances after that final call-up this summer. He was a career .209/.293/.311 (70 wRC+) hitter with a 24.6% strikeout rate in 637 big league plate appearances prior to that. The Yankees are hoping the strong finish is a sign of real improvement and not just a three-month hot streak.

There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of a breakout, if he didn’t already break out with the Twins last year. First and foremost, he became more aggressive at the plate. Usually that’s a bad thing, but Hicks was passive earlier in his career, and that’s bad. Here are his plate discipline stats:

Aaron Hicks plate discpline

(Hicks had over 200 plate appearances each year from 2013-15 and swing rates tend to stabilize very quickly, so while it isn’t a huge sample, the data works.)

Hicks started swinging at more pitches in the strike zone last year (Z-Swing%) without swinging at substantially more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). His contact rates have held relatively steady too, which is good. He’s being more selective in the sense that he’s swinging at more strikes without swinging at more balls.

All throughout the minors Hicks drew a ton of walks (career 14.4 BB%) but he was letting too many hittable pitches go by at the MLB level. The MLB average Swing% and Z-Swing% are 46.9% and 64.4%, respectively. Hicks was well below that from 2013-14 and is now closer to average. Working the count and drawing walks is good! But the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and taking so many pitches in the zone is no way to hit.

“Preparation is key to be successful to the big leagues. If you don’t know who the starting pitcher is, it’s tough to prepare for that. I think that made me a stronger player, a better player,” said Hicks to Ken Davidoff when asked about his strong second half. “I feel confident that I’m hitting big league pitching and I’m developing into a good Major League hitter.”

Hicks is a switch-hitter who stopped hitting left-handed for a while in 2014 because of a lack of success. He made the decision himself before being talked back into it — “Rod Carew called me and told me what the heck am I doing, giving up switch hitting? It’s a blessing and I should go back to work harder at it and be able to learn from my mistakes,” said Hicks to Ronald Blum — though maintaining two swings can be tough. Maintaining one swing is tough.

Last year Hicks made some mechanical changes at the plate, specifically adding a leg kick. This was him at the plate in 2014. He had the same slight step while batting right-handed as well:

Aaron Hicks 2014 swing

The center field camera in Target Field is just the best.

Anyway, Hicks has almost no leg kick there. It was a little step forward and nothing more. Again, he did the same from the right side of the plate. Here’s video if you don’t believe me. I’m not making another GIF.

Now look at Hicks in 2015. He has a much more exaggerated leg kick:

Aaron Hicks 2015 swing

Hicks had the same leg kick while hitting from the right side too. Here’s video. He told friend of RAB Brandon Warne the leg kick came about when he and some teammates were messing around during batting practice, mimicking the swings and leg kicks of other players around the league.

“I started to like it,” he said to Warne. “From then on it was kind of a point where I was just like, you know what, I’m going to try this. We were just having fun in offseason hitting, and it just kind of led to me being comfortable with it and taking solid swings.”

Hicks told Warne he came to Spring Training this past season with the leg kick and kept “tinkering all through the spring” until he got it just right. “Torii (Hunter) helped tinker it for me as far as what I needed to do to be able to get my foot down in time,” he added.

Leg kicks do different things for different hitters, but for the most part it is a timing and/or weight transfer thing. There aren’t a whole lot of hitters these days who hit with a tiny step forward like the one Hicks was using prior to this season. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it’s not for everyone. Hicks found something more comfortable.

“I feel like with the leg kick I’ve been more aggressive. Swinging early in counts and being able to make contact early, and not missing pitches,” said Hicks to Warne. “I think for me it’s more important to have my hands ready all the time to be able to fire them whenever I need to. A leg kick is going to generate my timing mechanism so I need to have my hands ready.”

So hey, how about that, the leg kick and the increased Z-Swing% might be related. At least Hicks believes they are, and that’s all that matters. Neat. It’s also worth noting that even though Hicks was swinging at more strikes this year, he still maintained a healthy 8.7% walk rate. It was 9.6% after being called up the final time.

Once upon a time Hicks was a first round pick (14th overall in 2008) and one of the top prospects in baseball (No. 19 in 2010), so this isn’t some middling talent the Yankees are trying to refine. Hicks has tremendous natural ability. Baseball America (subs. req’d) once said he has the potential to “become a five-tool center fielder with 20-25 home run power who bats in the middle of a lineup.”

It has taken Hicks some time to find his way at the MLB level and that’s not terribly uncommon. He’s still trying to figure out what works best for him, which led to the leg kick and a more aggressive approach — let’s call it “controlled aggression” since he’s not hacking at pitches off the plate — this year. Sometimes it takes time. Baseball is hard.

The Yankees are betting on Hicks — who turned only 26 last month, by the way — and his talent, hoping the improvement he made this summer is real. The change in approach and leg kick give us some tangible reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of breaking out, at least as a legitimate everyday player, if not more.

“It feels good that the team that just traded for me has confidence in me,” said Hicks to reporters on a conference call after the trade last week. “Whatever they want me to do, just do it, and to know my role and help this team win.”