Scouting the Free Agent Market: Alex Cobb

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Coming into the offseason it was clear the Yankees need at least one starting pitcher, if not two given the big workloads the staff endured in 2017. In a perfect world one of those two starters would’ve been Shohei Ohtani. That won’t happen though. Re-signing CC Sabathia seems likely, at least I think so, but even then there’s still room for another starter. There’s no such thing as too much pitching depth.

One of the top free agent starters this offseason — I’d say he’s the top second tier starter behind Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta — is longtime Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. He turned 30 in October, and even though the Rays haven’t been a .500 team since 2013 (true story), Cobb has been through the AL East grinder and knows what it’s like pitching against great teams in tough hitter friendly environments. The Yankees have not been seriously connected to him yet, only speculatively, though I suspect it’ll happen at some point. Let’s break Cobb down as a potential target.

Injury History

This is the logical place to start, because Cobb’s injury history is sneaky long. So long in fact that his 179.1 innings this season represent a new career high. Here’s a recap of his injury history with the amount of time missed:

  • 2010: Oblique strain (one month)
  • 2011: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery (missed final two months of the season)
  • 2013: Concussion (two months after being hit by a line drive)
  • 2014: Oblique strain (six weeks)
  • 2015: Tommy John surgery (entire season)
  • 2016: Tommy John surgery rehab (returned to MLB in late August)
  • 2017: Turf toe (three weeks)

Definitely some fluky stuff in there that is not a long-term concern. Two oblique strains four years apart? It happens. Turf toe? Whatever. Getting hit in the head by a line drive and being carted off the field on a stretcher, as scary as that is, is a total fluke. The baddest of bad luck injuries.

On the other hand, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is very serious and can end careers if not caught early enough. Tommy John surgery is obviously very bad too. The combination of the two is worse than the sum of the parts. Chris Carpenter is the only notable example of a pitcher who had both and went on to have a long career. Shaun Marcum and Noah Lowry had both and were done. Jaime Garcia had both and hasn’t been the same since. Same with Matt Harvey, though he’s only a year removed from his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.

The good news is Cobb had the procedures five years apart, and he returned in 2017 to be an effective pitcher in close to 180 innings. So perhaps he’s the next Carpenter rather than the next Marcum. In fact, he’s already ahead of the game just by making it back from both procedures and throwing a full season. Still though, that’s a pretty scary injury history, even ignoring the fluky stuff.

Recent Performance

When Cobb returned with his new elbow late last year, he was so bad that it’s almost hard to believe. He allowed 22 runs and 39 baserunners in five starts and 22 innings last season, after returning in August. Yuck. That said, it was his first five starts back from Tommy John surgery, so it’s fair to cut the guy some slack. Chalk it up to the rust and the usual post-elbow reconstruction wonkiness.

This season Cobb was much better, as he got further away from Tommy John surgery, though he did not perform like he did immediately prior to the injury. His numbers were down across the board. Here is Cobb’s final pre-Tommy John surgery season and his first full post-Tommy John surgery season:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 166.1 2.87 3.23 21.9% 6.9% 56.2% 0.6 .294 .265
2017 179.1 3.66 4.16 17.3% 5.9% 47.8% 1.1 .311 .295

Do you remember what baseball was like in 2014? Nobody scored runs. Teams scored, on average, 4.07 runs per game. The Angels led baseball with 4.77 runs per game that year. This season teams averaged 4.65 runs per game with the Astros leading the pack at 5.53 runs per game. The juiced ball has brought back offense, thankfully. I missed it.

Anyway, because of the offensive explosion from 2014 to 2017, we have to throw Cobb a bit of a bone here. His home run rate nearly doubled? Okay, part of that is what’s going on around baseball in general. The decline in strikeout rate and ground ball rate is not a juiced ball problem, however. In fact, we should’ve expected Cobb’s strikeout rate to increase this year because there are so many more strikeouts in baseball now.

That 2.87 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 2014 work out 77 ERA- and an 88 FIP-, meaning his ERA was 23% better than average and his FIP was 12% better than average. This year he had 86 ERA- and a 97 FIP-. Still better than average! But not as good as before Tommy John surgery when adjusted for ballpark and the offensive environment around baseball. Long story short: Cobb was good this year, but not as good as he was before blowing out his elbow.

Current Stuff

If you’ve been watching the Yankees long enough, chances are you’ve seen Cobb shut them down with that nasty split-finger fastball of his at some point. That pitch is the reason he made it to the big leagues. That pitch is also perhaps the biggest red flag surrounding Cobb at this point. Since Tommy John surgery, it has behaved almost nothing it did before he had his elbow rebuilt.

Eno Sarris touched on this back in April, but that was very early in the season, and now we have a full season’s worth of data to examine. Cobb’s splitter lost quite a bit of effectiveness from his pre-Tommy John surgery days. Here are the splitter numbers, ignoring that short and messy 2016 stint.

% Thrown Velo Gap Vert Mvmt Diff Horiz Mvmt Diff % Whiffs % GB
2013 32.7% 5.23 5.70 -0.29 18.9% 60.0%
2014 37.7% 5.26 5.22 0.76 21.1% 62.0%
2017 14.3% 6.07 1.72 -0.34 12.3% 51.8%

Cobb does throw his curveball regularly, though the sinker and splitter are his top two pitches, and that’s what we’re comparing here. The velocity gap and movement differences are between the sinker and splitter. That’s the whole point, right? Use the sinker to set up the splitter. You want the pitches to be similar but different, if that makes sense. A couple quick observations:

  • This year Cobb threw his trademark splitter way less than ever before in his MLB career. Imagine if Masahiro Tanaka did that? He’d be an entirely different pitcher.
  • Cobb had a larger velocity gap between his sinker and splitter this year than he did in 2013 and 2014, and that’s good. You want a big velocity gap between your fastball and offspeed stuff.
  • From 2013-14, Cobb’s splitter dropped more than five inches more than his sinker. This year the difference was less than two inches. That’s a significant difference. The bottom wasn’t falling out of the split.
  • The difference in horizontal movement between the two pitches was about the same this year as 2013, though way less than 2014. (The negative number in the table means the sinker moved more horizontally than the split.)

Ideally you want an 8-10 mph gap between your fastball and offspeed pitch (if not more), but even at his best from 2013-14, Cobb’s velocity gap was roughly five-and-a-quarter miles an hour. Because he doesn’t have that huge velocity gap, he relies on movement more than most, and for whatever reason, the split is not moving like it did before Tommy John surgery, especially vertically. It’s not diving out of the zone.

It should also be noted Cobb’s release point with his splitter — and only his splitter, weirdly — has risen since he came back from Tommy John surgery. He’s releasing the splitter from a higher spot than before his elbow ligament gave out. Look:

alex-cobb-release-point

That is weird. Is the change in release point causing the lack of movement? Or has Cobb raised his release point in an effort to generate more movement? Chicken or the egg, man. Chicken or the egg. Whatever it is, Cobb is not getting the same movement on his splitter now as he did before Tommy John surgery, and as a result, the pitch is generating fewer swings and misses and ground balls. And he’s not throwing it nearly as often.

The split-finger is what made Cobb so good before Tommy John surgery and that pitch is the key to him being a quality pitcher going forward. His sinker is fine and his curveball is fine, but they’re not good enough that he can scale back that much on his splitter and succeed forever. Like I said, what if Tanaka stopped throwing his splitter so much? He’d be a much different pitcher. Anyway, here’s some video of Cobb this year:

Seven strikeouts in the video. Four on sinkers and three on curveballs. Not one splitter. That would’ve been unthinkable for Cobb before Tommy John surgery. Bottom line: Cobb was quite good this season, but his splitter is not the same as it was before his elbow gave out for whatever reason, and unless that changes, there’s no reason to think he’ll return to his previous level of performance. He’s now a solid starter, not someone who is a borderline ace like he was from 2013-14. And hey, that’s fine. Solid starters are good to have.

Contract Estimates

Cobb is one of the top free agent starters on the market and that means he will be paid quite well. Quality starters never have trouble finding work. Here are two contract estimates:

I think both estimates are low. I could totally see Cobb pulling down $16M annually on a four or even five-year deal. That’s Ian Kennedy money. No, Kennedy did not have Tommy John surgery in his recent past, but he also wasn’t as good as Cobb, and he was a year older than Cobb is now when he hit free agency. Cobb at four years and $48M sounds pretty great actually, splitter issues be damned.

Also, keep in mind the Rays made Cobb the qualifying offer. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the Yankees would have to surrender their second and fifth round picks in the 2018 draft, and $1M in bonus money during the 2018-19 international signing period, to sign a qualified free agent. I’d rather give all that up than my first round pick like they did in old days, but that’s just me.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a quality starter — even with his post-Tommy John surgery splitter — and the Yankees could use another quality starter. It sure doesn’t hurt that Cobb is AL East battle tested and turned only 30 in October, meaning you should get another year or two of peak performance, in theory. The Yankees need another starter and Cobb is among the best available, so yes, he’s a fit on the field.

Is he fit under the luxury tax plan? My calculations say the Yankees have about $35M to play with under the luxury tax threshold, though I underestimated the team’s contribution to player benefits, so it’s actually closer to $32M or so. Still though, that’s a nice chunk of change, so the Yankees can afford Cobb. Can they afford Cobb and Sabathia? Eh, probably not. Remember, they have to leave some money open for midseason call-ups and the trade deadline additions.

Personally, I think Cobb carries an awful lot of risk. He has both Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Tommy John surgery in his history and his best pitch is not the same anymore, and I think it’s much more likely the pitch gets worse going forward with age, not better. Maybe Cobb will bounce back next year and pitch like the 2013-14 version of himself, or even just maintain his 2017 performance. I’m not willing to bet $12M or $14M or $16M or whatever it ends up being on him. It doesn’t matter what I think though. It matters what the Yankees think, and whether they’re willing to take the risk.

Thoughts after the Yankees name Aaron Boone manager

No more dip in the dugout, skip. (Getty)
No more dip in the dugout, skip. (Getty)

In a few hours the Yankees will hold an introductory press conference for new manager Aaron Boone, who we learned got the job last Friday. You’ll be able to watch the press conference live on YES and Yankees.com at 12pm ET. Needless to say, this is a significant change. The upstart Yankees are going from veteran skipper in Joe Girardi to a neophyte in Boone. The manager situation is almost a microcosm of the roster. Out with the old, in with the new. Anyway, I have thoughts on all this, so let’s get to ’em.

1. News broke the Yankees would name Boone their manager Friday night, and the word of the weekend was “risky.” It’s a risky hire. The Yankees made a risky move. It’s a risky decision. Blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. Of course hiring Boone is a risky decision. This was always going to be a risky decision, no matter who the Yankees hired. Realistically, who could the Yankees have hired to make this whole thing not be considered risky? Maybe luring Terry Francona away from the Indians would’ve done the trick? Parting ways with Girardi and going forward with literally anyone else as manager was risky. I don’t see Boone as any more risky than any other managerial candidate, even with the lack of experience. Hire an experienced manager and you’re hoping he learned from his previous managerial stint (from which he was fired, of course). Hire an inexperienced manager and you don’t really know what you’re going to get. There’s always risk, and with Boone, the focus has been on the negative (he might suck) rather the positive, specifically the fact he is a very bright and personable guy who grew up in the game and is enthusiastic about taking on the challenge of managing in New York.

2. When teams change managers, they have a tendency to bring someone in who is the exact opposite of the guy they just fired. The Mets and Phillies went from the old school Terry Collins and Pete Mackanin to the very new school Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler this offseason, respectively. The Tigers moved on from Brad Ausmus, an analytics guy and former front office dude, and brought in the thoroughly unspectacular Ron Gardenhire. The Yankees replaced the intense and meticulous Girardi with Boone, who by all accounts is much more laid back and open-minded. Girardi was high-strung and he wore it on his face, you could see if every time the Yankees played a remotely important game, and I think that tends to wear on a team after a while. That shouldn’t be a problem with Boone. He’s outgoing and he’s got a great sense of humor (have you seen his impressions?). I’ll be very surprised if we see Boone in the dugout wearing that same strained look Girardi wore so often the last decade.

3. “Communication” was the buzzword during the managerial search, and if you’re judging Boone’s communication skills on his broadcasting, just stop. Broadcasting a game for a national audience is waaay different than communicating with players one-on-one. Informing the audience is not the same thing as a manager forming a professional (and personal) relationship with his players. Basically everything I’ve read about Boone the last few days (like this, this, this, this, and this) indicates he is very relatable and the kind of person who gets along with everyone. He’ll joke around with the media — that’ll be a nice change of pace from Girardi, who enjoyed speaking to the media about as much as I enjoy a subway platform on a nice and toasty August afternoon — and keep his players loose, and that’s important. The Yankees bought into his communication skills and ultimately, that’s all that matters. Just don’t judge those skills by his broadcasts. Talking on television and talking to human beings are very different things.

4. Clearly, experience was not a priority for the Yankees. Or for pretty much any team this offseason, for that matter. Six teams changed managers this winter (Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees) and five of them hired first time managers. Only the Tigers (Gardenhire) hired a retread. The Yankees interviewed six candidates and only one, Eric Wedge, had prior MLB managerial experience. Boone and Carlos Beltran have zero coaching or managerial experience, and Chris Woodward is relatively new to the coaching game. This is the trend within baseball now. Even Girardi only had one year coaching experience and one year managerial experience under his belt when the Yankees hired him. He wasn’t exactly a seasoned vet. Teams don’t want Joe Maddon or Terry Francona. They want the next Joe Maddon or Terry Francona. Look at the two World Series managers this year. Dave Roberts and A.J. Hinch have barely more than 1,000 games of managerial experience combined. That’s a little more than six full seasons between them. Boone spent the last few seasons speaking to all 30 managers as a broadcaster — and I don’t mean those silly mid-game interviews, I’m talking about in the clubhouse and on the field before games — and that’s valuable experience. He got to pick the brain of everyone around the league rather than work under one or two managers. Young inexperienced managers are a clean slate. Boone is going to have his own unique managerial style, no doubt, but the Yankees will also be able to mold him into the manager they want because he’s not set in his ways. That’s what pretty much every team is trying to do these days.

5. I was surprised the Yankees let Rob Thomson get away and join the Phillies as their new bench coach. He’d been with the Yankees since the early 1990s and he’d done basically everything there is to do in the organization. Thomson knew the Yankees inside and out, and he said he wanted to stay even if he didn’t get the manager’s job. The fact he’s now with Philadelphia leads me to believe the Yankees moved on from Thomson, not the other way around. The split seems amicable — “No hard feelings on my part! It’s the business. The Steinbrenners and the Yankee organization have taken great care of me for 28 years,” said Thomson to Joel Sherman — so I wonder if the Yankees felt they needed such large scale clubhouse change that they let Thomson go in addition to Girardi. Or maybe they didn’t want Boone to have to look over his shoulder at a Girardi holdover and someone else who interviewed for the managerial job? I’m not sure. If anything, I thought the Yankees would kick Thomson back up to the front office than let him go completely. I’m surprised. I expected Thomson to stay in some capacity.

6. Speaking of the front office, I think the odds are pretty darn good the Yankees will hire Beltran as a special advisor to Brian Cashman, similar to Hideki Matsui. I think that’s why they brought him in for the managerial interview. To show him respect and to show him he’s wanted. Matsui has been a special advisor to Cashman for three years now and his duties include, among other things, going around and working with prospects in the minors. I know Beltran said he wants to manage, but going from player one year to manager the next is a huge jump, and was probably never all that realistic. A special advisor role is much less demanding. There’s less travel and more time at home with the family, which a recently retired player figures to appreciate. But he also gets to stay in baseball and begin the second phase of his career. Matsui and Beltran are very similar. They are dignified and very highly respected, especially in their home countries, and have a lot of baseball knowledge to offer. The Yankees could bring Beltran aboard as a special advisor with the promise that if a coaching or managerial job opens somewhere around the league, he’s free to leave. He can work with players up and down the organization, particularly Latin American players, in the meantime. Beltran is someone worth having in the organization and I think the Yankees let him know they want him during their interview, even if they didn’t name him their manager.

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

7. Among the six managerial candidates, my personal preference was Hensley Meulens, though I didn’t feel strongly about any of the candidates one way or the other. I liked Bam Bam because he has extensive coaching experience. That’s basically it. Being able to speak five languages was an obvious plus, though I thought it was getting played up a little too much. There’s more to managing than speaking different languages. Meulens has coached for a long time, he’s coached under a great manager in Bruce Bochy, and just about everyone who’s spent time around him has said he’ll make a great manager one day, so that’s why I liked him. Then again, Meulens has interviewed for a few managerial openings over the years (including the Tigers this offseason) and didn’t get any of them, so maybe he’s not as great of a candidate as everything thinks? I dunno. I thought Bam Bam would be the guy and he was my personal favorite for the job, but like I said, I didn’t feel all that strongly about any of the six candidates. I thought maybe I would the deeper the Yankees got into the process, but nope. I was mostly indifferent about the whole thing.

8. The next step now is building a coaching staff and I have to think Boone and Yankees will look for a bench coach with managerial experience to help the rookie skipper. I don’t think there will be a meaningful difference between Girardi and Boone in terms of on-field strategy. The lineup kinda writes itself, at least through the top six spots or so, and the bullpen is deep enough to survive the rookie manager’s learning curve. The front office has a lot of input into that stuff anyway. Boone and the Yankees are still going to want someone in the dugout with experience. Someone who has run a Spring Training before, someone who has seen so many of those weird situations baseball can throw at you. Who are some potential bench coach candidates then? Beats me. Wedge has been mentioned as a candidate — he managed Boone for two years in Cleveland — and he reportedly wants to get back in the managing game, and getting back in the dugout as a bench coach is a step in that direction. Tony Pena is an obvious candidate, but if the Yankees want to move on from Pena like they apparently wanted to move on from Thomson, he won’t be an option. Dave Miley managed Boone for a short period of time in 2003 and managed Triple-A Scranton from 2006-15, so he is familiar with the Yankees and vice versa. Could the Yankees hire bench coach Bob Geren away from the Dodgers? They’d probably be able to get Fredi Gonzalez, Boone’s former manager with the Marlins, away from Miami. He is currently their third base coach. Robin Ventura (unemployed)? John Farrell (unemployed)? Ron Washington (Braves third base coach)? Bo Porter (unemployed)? I’m looking forward to seeing the coaching staff. Should be interesting.

9. Boone is going to be under the microscope this year because every new manager is under the microscope, though in this case Boone is the inexperienced manager of ready to win Yankees, who will almost certainly be a trendy World Series pick going into 2018. There will be a lot of attention on him. And that’s good because it means that much less attention will be paid to Aaron Judge and Greg Bird and Luis Severino and all the other young players who would’ve been the top story this season had the Yankees kept Girardi. There’s some value in that. Anything that makes life easier for your young cornerstone players is a plus. I always thought Alex Rodriguez provided an intangible value by soaking up so much attention that many other Yankees were able to fly under the radar. Don’t get me wrong, there will be a ton of attention of Judge and Severino and all the young guys expected to lead the team to a title. As much attention as there would’ve been without the managerial change? I don’t think so.

10. So what number will Boone wear? I imagine we’ll find out today. He wore No. 19 during his brief stint with the Yankees as a player, but that’s Masahiro Tanaka‘s number. Boone also wore No. 8 at times in his career. That’s not happening either. He wore No. 17 with the Reds all those years, and that’s open now with Matt Holliday gone, so I guess that’s it? We’ll find out. Whatever it is, I hope Boone doesn’t adopt Girardi’s tradition of wearing the number of the World Series title the Yankees are chasing. Remember that? He wore No. 27 in 2008 and 2009, then when the Yankees won the 2009 World Series, he switched to No. 28 because that was his goal, the team’s 28th championship. I always thought that was kind of gimmicky, and when Girardi ended up wearing No. 28 for the final eight years of his tenure, it was a daily reminder that the Yankees weren’t achieving their stated goal. The gimmick has run its course. I hope Boone picks No. 17 or whatever and that’s that.

11. And finally, no, the Yankees did not hire Boone because of that home run he hit 14 years ago. I know some people out there are thinking it. Did that home run give Boone a level of celebrity he wouldn’t have otherwise achieved given his playing career? Absolutely. It helped land him on ESPN, I’m sure. And maybe that helped Boone stay relevant long enough to be considered for a managerial gig seven years after he played his final game. But no, that homer didn’t get him the job. If anything, being honest and accountable about blowing out his knee in a basketball game helped Boone get the job. He could’ve easily made up some story about getting hurt during an offseason workout to keep his 2004 contract — the Yankees voided his $5.75M deal, which would’ve been the highest salary of his career by $2M — but no, Boone owned up to it. That speaks to his character and I think that stood out to the Yankees. Now, did they hire him because of that? No, of course not. But it was an insight into Boone’s character. It was a piece of information that could be used during the hiring process. The home run though? Nope.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Happy Didi Day. Three years ago today Brian Cashman made one of his very best trades, sending Shane Greene to the Tigers to get Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks. Since the trade, Gregorius ranks seventh among all shortstops in WAR and third in homers, behind only Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor. What a trade. Oh, and later that day, the Yankees signed Andrew Miller. December 5th, 2014 turned out to be a pretty significant day in Yankeeland.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The three local hockey teams are playing, plus there’s a bunch of college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Didi trade, the Miller signing, or anything else here as long as it’s not politics or religion.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tony Watson

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

It is almost impossible to discuss the Yankees quest to find a reliable left-handed reliever without resorting to hyperbole. The team seems to be perpetually in search of a left-handed specialist, outside of those few months when Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller occupied the same bullpen. Most of that stems from heavy regression from internal candidates – such as Chasen Shreve and Tommy Layne – and it has prevented the team from playing the match-ups in the middle innings over the last season and a half. And, with some options on the free agent market, it seems likely that the Yankees will be on the hunt for a bit of stability in the left-on-left role.

Mike wrote about Jake McGee, the best or second-best left-handed reliever available, last week. Today I’ll be digging into the other contender for that distinction – Tony Watson.

Recent Performance

Tony Watson became an absolute stud in 2013, just as the Pirates transitioned from semi-laughingstock to legitimate playoff contender. He maintained an excellent level of performance for three seasons, but has regressed a bit over the last two years. Check out his numbers over the last five years, for reference:

capture

There are certainly some disconcerting signs, the most notable of which is Watson’s home run rate. Going from three straight seasons of elite home run prevention to back-to-back years of average (or worse) rates isn’t great. Moreover, his strikeout rate also slipped to a career low, even as league-wide rates spiked. Those factors combined to make him less effective – albeit still good – against lefties; it limited his utility as an all-purpose reliever, though.

It is worth noting that Watson was dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, and he looked much more like the pitcher he was the previous four years. His strikeout rate (+5.2 percentage points), groundball rate (+15.7 percentage points), home run rate (from 1.35 per 9 to 0.90), and LHH wOBA (from .316 to .279) all improved markedly, and he pitched very well in the playoffs.

The Stuff

Watson is a rare sort of reliever, in that he throws four distinct pitches – a four-seam fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, a sinker in that same range, a change-up in the upper 80s, and a mid-80s slider. His velocity has dipped since 2014, but has remained relatively steady these last three years. Take a look at his usage rates:

brooksbaseball-chart

The slider is Watson’s least-used pitch, and he still throws it between ten and fifteen percent of the time. One thing that stands out about this chart, particularly when you consider his improvements with the Dodgers, is his sinker usage. Take a look at 2017 as a whole:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

Watson went from essentially alternating between his four-seamer and sinker to featuring the latter, and it paid dividends. His strikeout rate jumped back into his career-norm range, and his groundball rate was a tick under 60% – and that’s an excellent combination. Whether or not that is a product of a small sample size or the Dodgers unlocking something in his sinker remains to be seen.

Injury History

It’s kind of remarkable how healthy Watson has been as a professional. He has made at least 67 appearances (including the minors) in each of the last seven seasons, and has never been on the major league disabled list. Watson did miss most of 2009 with inflammation in his left elbow, but he did not require surgery; his only other injury that I can find was when he had Tommy John surgery as a Junior at Nebraska.

Contract Estimates

Both MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs’ crowdsource predicted a two-year, $12 MM deal. That seems a bit light, given his long track record of success, “proven closer” status, and high-profile work with the Dodgers down the stretch and in the playoffs, and it therefore strikes me as incredibly reasonable. There are no comparables out there just yet, given how quiet this off-season has been (and the fact that Mike Minor may be starting for the Rangers), but most relievers of his ilk end up signing for three years and a higher AAV.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

The pre-2017 version and Dodgers version of Watson makes a great deal of sense for the Yankees, as a  left-handed reliever that shuts down lefties and is (usually more than) competent against righties. It’s difficult to fully ignore his first-half, though, as well as the trend that we can see between 2016 and 2017.

The Yankees, as an organization, seem to prefer to have a true left-handed specialist, and the aforementioned Shreve does not seem to be it. They also do not seem likely to sink money into a luxury item, given their payroll goals. Figuring out where Watson (or McGee) fits on that continuum is an open-ended question – but if he’s really going to sign for $6 MM a year, I could see him fitting into the team’s plans.

The Fill-in Starting Pitchers [2017 Season Review]

Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Although they went into Spring Training with two open rotation spots and physical concerns with the other three spots, the Yankees made it through the 2017 season using only eleven different starting pitchers. Only ten teams used fewer. Furthermore, the Yankees had only eight pitchers make at least five starts this year. Those eight pitchers accounted for 158 of the Yankees’ 162 starts this season.

Pitching depth is a necessity in baseball, not a luxury, and the Yankees got some decent production out of their depth arms this year. Given how often pitchers get hurt, the performance of your sixth or seventh starter can very easily be the difference between a postseason berth and a long offseason. Times to review the three starters who drew the most fill-in starts during the 2017 season.

Luis Cessa

It wasn’t until mid-June that the Yankees were forced to use a sixth starter for the first time. A hamstring injury sent CC Sabathia to the disabled list, and while Cessa’s overall Triple-A numbers weren’t great (4.15 ERA and 4.40 FIP in 65 innings), he’d allowed only five runs in his previous three starts and 20 innings. He was the hot hand. Plus he lined up perfectly with Sabathia’s rotation spot.

Cessa made three starts while Sabathia was sidelined, during which he allowed eleven runs on 13 hits and six walks in 13.2 innings. One start was okay (three runs in five innings) while the other two were bad (four runs in four innings, four runs in 4.2 innings). Joe Girardi kept the leash short with Cessa — he averaged only 82 pitches in those three starts, all Yankees losses — which was understandable.

The Yankees kept Cessa around as a long reliever following Sabathia’s return, and he pitched fairly well in that role, allowing six runs in 14.2 innings across five appearances. One real disaster outing against the Reds (three runs in one inning) skew the numbers a bit. Cessa tossed 4.2 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on July 4th and 3.1 scoreless innings against the Rays on July 30th.

Following a quick stint in Triple-A, Cessa returned to the Yankees in mid-August, making a spot start against the Mets on August 14th when Sabathia’s knee acted up. He allowed two runs in 4.2 innings and had to be pulled after throwing 66 pitches with what appeared to be a back injury. Cessa would not pitch again this season. He was placed on the disabled list the next day with what the Yankees called a rib cage injury. It was season-ending.

In five spot starts this season Cessa pitched to a 5.82 ERA (6.25 FIP) and held hitters to a .256/.360/.535 batting line in 21.2 innings. In five relief appearances, he had a 3.14 ERA (4.83 FIP) and a .259/.333/.389 opponent’s batting line in 14.1 innings. (Cessa also had a 3.46 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 78.1 Triple-A innings.) Pretty bad all around, save those long relief outings against the Blue Jays and Rays.

I am a Cessa fan — I know that puts me in the extreme minority — because I like his athleticism (former shortstop!), I like his velocity (averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.5 mph in 2017), and I like that he throws four pitches. That said, Cessa shelved his curveball and changeup as the season progressed and started to lean heavily on his fastball and slider:

luis-cessa-pitch-selection

The swing-and-miss rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 21.4%. The MLB average is 16.9%. The whiffs-per-swing rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 43.2%. The MLB average is 35.2%. When you’re getting empty swings like that on your slider, why bother messing around with a curveball and changeup, especially when you’re trying to stick around and establish yourself in the big leagues?

Cessa will turn 26 in April and he has a minor league option remaining for next season, so he figures to again be an up-and-down depth arm in 2018. He doesn’t want to become Bryan Mitchell. That good arm/bad results guy who runs out of options without having carved out a role in the big leagues. Depending how the rotation depth chart shakes out, the Yankees might be best served by putting Cessa in the bullpen full-time next year, and letting him air it out with an upper-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. He just might surprise you.

Jaime Garcia

Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Despite strong overall results, the rotation was enough of a concern at the trade deadline that the Yankees added two starters, not one. Michael Pineda went down with Tommy John surgery, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were piling up innings, and Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. So, on July 30th, the Yankees traded pitching prospects Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell to the Twins for veteran southpaw Jaime Garcia. They then traded for Sonny Gray the next day.

Garcia made his Yankees debut on August 4th and it did not go well. Not at all. He allowed six runs (five earned) in 4.2 innings in Cleveland. Yuck. After that though, Jaime reeled off a six-start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.97 ERA (4.67 FIP) in 30.1 innings. Girardi had a short leash and didn’t let Garcia face the middle of the lineup a third time often, but hey, that’s a serviceable six-start stretch. Coincidentally enough, Jaime’s best game as a Yankee came against the Twins, his former team, on September 18th.

Nine strikeouts and one unearned run on four hits and one walk in 5.2 innings against the team chasing you for the top wildcard spot. Could you imagine if Garcia had pitched like that in a postseason race against the Yankees after they’d traded him? Good gravy. The hot takes would burn down the internet. Garcia helped the Yankees sweep the Twins that series, which effectively ended the race for the top wildcard spot.

Jaime made eight starts for the Yankees after the trade — they used a quasi-six-man rotation for parts of September, so at one point Garcia went 13 days between starts — throwing 37.1 innings with a 4.82 ERA (4.87 FIP) overall. Not great, but they, the Yankees needed the pitching depth, and the six-start stretch in the middle was fine. Garcia was on the ALDS and ALCS rosters and he did get into a postseason game, tossing 2.2 hitless mop-up innings in Game One against the Indians, sparing the other relievers in the loss. (The bullpen was shot after the Wild Card Game, remember.)

Garcia was a rental. He’s a free agent now and there are no indications the Yankees may bring him back, though, to be fair, there are no indications the Yankees plan to do anything right now. Things have been pretty quiet the last few days. I suppose the Yankees could look at Jaime as a one-year candidate should they opt against bringing Sabathia back. I doubt it, but you never know.

Caleb Smith

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
Smith. (Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Smith’s season started with the biggest opportunity of his career. He was in camp with the Cubs as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Chicago wanted him so much they worked out a trade with the Brewers to get him. In a prearranged deal, Milwaukee picked Smith in the Rule 5 Draft, then immediately traded him to their NL Central rivals for an undisclosed sum of cash. The Cubbies wanted Smith, but they had the last Rule 5 Draft pick and were worried he wouldn’t last, so they made the trade.

Things didn’t work out for Smith with the Cubs. He allowed three runs (all on solo homers) in 6.1 Cactus League innings and was returned to the Yankees at the end of camp. It was going to be tough for Smith to crack Chicago’s roster given their depth anyway, and once he started serving up dingers in Spring Training, that was that. The Cubs took a look, didn’t like what they saw enough to keep him, then sent him back to the Yankees.

The Yankees had Smith start the season back in Double-A — he spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons with Trenton — but moved him up to Triple-A Scranton a week into the season. He was lights out with the RailRiders. I’m talking 2.11 ERA (3.32 FIP) with 25.6% strikeouts in 15 starts and 89.2 innings before getting his first MLB call-up in July. The Yankees needed another long man and Smith was their pick.

Smith’s first big league outing went better than the line score indicates: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. He retired the first six men he faced before things unraveled when some ground balls found holes in his third inning of work. The outing was good enough to earn Smith a spot start a few days later, in Pineda’s suddenly vacant rotation spot. He made two starts and neither went particularly well:

  • July 23rd at Mariners: 3.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB 2 K on 56 pitches
  • July 29th vs. Rays: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K on 71 pitches

Despite being a lefty with good velocity — Smith’s fastball averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 97.1 mph during his brief MLB stint — and a good changeup, Smith struggled to put hitters away in his two spot starts, especially once the lineup turned over. Realistically, I don’t think there was anything he could do in those two starts to convince the Yankees they didn’t need Garcia and/or Gray. That he struggled made the decision to make the trades that much easier.

Smith went back to Triple-A for a few weeks after that before returning in mid-August as a reliever. In six relief outings to close out the season, he allowed eight runs in 8.2 innings, with opponents hitting .265/.359/.559 against him. A disastrous three runs, no outs appearance against the Rangers on September 8th skews his numbers a bit for sure. But still, Smith did not pitch all that well in the show. He threw 18.2 total innings with a 7.71 ERA (5.62 FIP).

Two weeks ago, as part of their annual 40-man roster cleanup, the Yankees traded Smith (and Garrett Cooper) to the Marlins for pitching prospect Mike King and $250,000 in Shohei Ohtani international bonus money. Smith wasn’t going to survive the 40-man roster purge and the Yankees got what they could for him. This is a good thing for him. Smith will turn 27 in July, and he figures to have a much better big league opportunity with Miami next year than he would with the Yankees. Hopefully things work out for him. He’s stuck with it for an awful long time in the minors.

Thoughts on Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects

Guzman. (MLB.com)
Guzman. (MLB.com)

Now that we’re a month into the offseason, Baseball America has started their annual look at the top ten prospects in each farm system. They hit on the Yankees yesterday. The list and system overview is free for all. The scouting reports and the chat are not, however. They’re behind the paywall.

There are no big surprises in the top ten. The top few spots are as expected — at least the names are as expected, we can quibble about the order until we’re blue in the face — before dipping into the plethora of power arms in the system. Here’s the top ten:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Estevan Florial
  3. LHP Justus Sheffield
  4. RHP Chance Adams
  5. 3B Miguel Andujar
  6. RHP Albert Abreu
  7. RHP Jorge Guzman
  8. RHP Luis Medina
  9. SS Thairo Estrada
  10. RHP Domingo Acevedo

Quick reminder: OF Clint Frazier is no longer prospect eligible. That’s why he’s not in the top ten. He exceeded the rookie limit by four at-bats this year. Anyway, nice to see my main man Thairo get some top ten love. It’s been fun to watch him climb from sleeper to 40-man roster player. I have some thoughts on the top ten, so let’s get to them.

1. This is a pitching system now. I mentioned this as part of the Baseball Prospectus top ten write-up and it is worth repeating. The Yankees are loaded with pitching now. A year ago at this time they were a position player heavy farm system and hey, that’s great. I’d rather build around bats long-term than arms. Now though, the farm system is full of power pitchers. Six of the top ten prospects are pitchers, and among the pitchers who didn’t make the top ten are RHP Domingo German, RHP Jonathan Loaisiga, RHP Freicer Perez, RHP Matt Sauer, RHP Clarke Schmidt, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Taylor Widener. When those dudes are not among the six best pitching prospects in your farm system, you are packed to the gills with pitching. Inevitably many of these guys will get hurt or flame out, but when you have as many quality arms as the Yankees, your chances of landing some long-term keepers is quite high.

2. Guzman’s velocity is super elite. It’ll be a year or two before the Yankees get some impact from the Brian McCann trade, but so far things are looking good. Both Abreu and Guzman are among their top ten prospects, and, according to the Baseball America scouting report, Guzman “averaged 99 mph with his four-seamer in 2017 and just a tick less with his two-seamer.” That is pretty insane. Among qualified pitchers, Luis Severino led MLB with a 97.8 mph average fastball velocity this year. Guzman averaged 99 mph, prompting J.J. Cooper to say he “has a strong argument that he’s the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball.” There is more to pitching than fastball velocity, of course, but the various scouting reports say Guzman made big strides with his secondary stuff and his command this year, so he’s starting to figure some things out. He’s not going to average 99 mph forever because no one does, but he’s starting from such a high baseline that even after losing some velocity in the coming years, he’ll sit mid-90s no problem.

3. Spin rate is a thing in the minors now too. I wrote a little bit about spin rate last week, and while it is still a relatively new concept to fans and analysts, it’s been a thing within baseball for a while now. The Baseball America scouting report mentions Medina has a “high-spin curveball,” and in the chat, Josh Norris notes RHP Deivi Garcia has a “hook that measures at 3,000 RPMs.” Only three big leaguers topped 3,000 rpm with their curveballs this season, for reference (min. 100 curveballs). RHP Drew Finley (curveball) and RHP Nolan Martinez (fastball) both earned notoriety for their spin rates as draft prospects. As I’ve said, spin rate is like velocity in that it’s only one tool in the shed, it’s not everything, but clearly it is something teams — the Yankees, specifically — target nowadays. The general belief is that spin is not really teachable. It’s either in your wrist or it’s not. The Yankees aren’t just hoarding pitching prospects. They’re hoarding high-spin prospects, the guys who are now very in demand at the big league level.

4. Mechanical changes contributed to Gilliam’s breakout. OF Isiah Gilliam, the team’s 20th round pick in 2015 and the recipient of a well-above-slot $550,000 bonus, was one of the easiest to overlook breakout stars in the farm system this summer. The switch-hitter spent most of the season at age 20, and he hit .275/.356/.468 (137 wRC+) with 15 homers and 10.8% walks in 125 Low-A games. That’s a damn fine season. Norris notes in the chat that Gilliam “saw significant benefits to the changes he made with his stance and swing mechanics,” and that’s pretty interesting. Amateur and minor league video can be tough to come by, so here’s what I dug up on Gilliam’s right-handed swing:

isiah-gilliam

That’s Gilliam in high school in 2014 on the left (video) and Gilliam with Low-A Charleston in 2017 on the right (video). I did my best to grab each image at the moment Gilliam begins to lift his front foot as part of his leg kick. Two things stand out. One, Gilliam has a wider base underneath him now. His legs are further apart. I suppose that could just be a camera angle issue, however. And two, his hands are much lower now. There’s no funny camerawork there. His hands used to be way up near to head and now they’re down by his chest, so yes, he has made some adjustments, at least to his right-handed swing. (There isn’t much old video of his left-handed swing, weirdly.) Anyway, Gilliam had a real nice season, and is one of those quality under-the-radar prospects that makes the system so deep.

5. So apparently Wade’s stock has dropped. Although he did not eclipse the 130 at-bat rookie limit this year, SS Tyler Wade is no longer rookie eligible because he accrued too much service time this season. Baseball America does not, however, consider service time when ranking prospects, so Wade is still prospect eligible. And yet, he’s not in the top ten. In the chat, Norris said Wade “did not come close to (making) this list” even though “he still has a big league future … probably as a utility infielder.” I like Wade. Have for a long time. I like the athleticism, the speed, the defense, and the strike zone knowledge. He just hit .310/.382/.460 (136 wRC+) with seven homers and 26 steals (in 31 attempts) in 85 Triple-A games as a 22-year-old. That’s really good! I know Wade stunk in the big leagues, but he had 63 plate appearances in 81 days of service time. The kid never played. Last year Aaron Judge got called up, struggled in his brief MLB debut, then tumbled down the prospect rankings. Baseball America ranked Judge as the sixth best prospect in the system coming into this season, behind SS Jorge Mateo (who didn’t hit) and RHP James Kaprielian (who was hurt all last year). Now Wade rips up Triple-A, struggles in an insignificant amount of big league playing time, and now he “did not come close” to ranking in the top ten prospects. Eh. I know I’m the high man on Wade, but if he’s not close to the top ten prospects, the system is even deeper than I realized.

Al Pedrique leaves Yankees to join Athletics coaching staff

Clint and Al. (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Clint and Al. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

Triple-A Scranton manager Al Pedrique has left the Yankees to become the Athletics first base coach, the A’s announced. Pedrique was speculated as a possible managerial candidate for the Yankees, though he never did get an interview. Over the years he’d been very open about his desire to manage in the big leagues again at some point.

Pedrique, 57, had been with the Yankees since 2013. He managed Low-A Charleston in 2013, High-A Tampa in 2014, Double-A Trenton in 2015, and Triple-A Scranton in 2016 and 2017. The RailRiders won their division the last two years — they won the Triple-A championship in 2016 — and Pedrique was named International League Manager of the Year both years.

Prior to joining the Yankees, Pedrique had worked as a scout — while with the Astros, he was the scout who recommended signing Jose Altuve — and minor league coach with several organizations. He was the Diamondbacks third base coach in 2003 and their interim manager for part of 2004. That is his only MLB managerial experience to date.

Pedrique had worked with basically every notable prospect in the system the last few years. He managed Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Gleyber Torres, you name it. Now the Yankees will have to find a new Triple-A Scranton skipper. Such is life. Minor league managers usually don’t stick around long-term.