Thoughts two weeks into the offseason

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Yesterday was the busiest day of the offseason so far but the Yankees were not directly involved with anything. Every move in baseball indirectly impacts every other team in some way though, plus one of New York’s division rivals made a major addition, so it’s not like yesterday’s two moves don’t matter to the Yankees. Anyway, here are some miscellaneous thoughts:

1. I think the Jason Heyward trade makes a potential Justin Upton to the Yankees trade much less likely. (To be clear, that was never rumored, I just hoped and prayed it would happen.) That doesn’t mean there’s no chance of it happening, but it was a long shot to begin with, and the odds just got even longer. Braves quasi-GM John Hart has made it clear he’s seeking pitching this winter and the Yankees don’t have much of that to give up. One year of Heyward cost four years of Shelby Miller, and I assume Upton will be similarly priced. Unless the Bombers are willing to part with Michael Pineda, I can’t see it. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks the Cardinals giving up on Shelby Miller, who they shopped aggressively last offseason, is a red flag? Miller wasn’t all that good this year and St. Louis knows pitching. They might have serious concerns about his long-term outlook.)

2. The Russell Martin signing is a pretty nice upgrade for the Blue Jays, who finished only one game behind the Yankees in 2014. Martin’s probably never going to hit like he did this past season again — he put up a .290/.402/.430 (140 wRC+) line for the Pirates this year — but he had a 99 wRC+ from 2011-13 and is an exception defensive catcher. Toronto’s backstops had an 87 wRC+ in 2014 and were terrible at throwing out base-runners (only 20%) and framing pitches. Martin is an upgrade in every way for them and that hurts the Yankees’ chances of contention going forward. Don’t get me wrong, Martin’s not a bargain, the Blue Jays paid top dollar to get him — five years and $82M, more or less Brian McCann‘s deal — but an upgrade is an upgrade, and the Jays made what should be a significant one yesterday.

3. The Cubs had been pursuing Martin before he agreed to sign with Toronto and I suppose that could put them in the trade market for a catcher. They have a decent backstop in Wellington Castillo, so it could be they will go forward with him and were only pursing Martin because they think so highly of him. If they are in the trade market for a catcher, the Yankees could offer John Ryan Murphy as part of a package for an infielder, but he wouldn’t be the centerpiece. I highly, highly, highly doubt there’s a McCann deal to be made. Chicago was reportedly offering Martin four years and $64M, which is approximately what’s left on McCann’s deal (four years and $68M), but McCann wasn’t all that good this past season and Martin was. McCann’s no-trade clause would be an obstacle as well. Maybe the Cubbies really like Murphy. Otherwise I expect them to go after a lower priced veteran catcher if they pursue one at all.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

4. For whatever reason, I am not at all confident the Yankees will re-sign David Robertson. I’m probably still scarred from Robinson Cano leaving last year. That was a bit different though. The Mariners made it very easy to say goodbye to Robbie with that contract. Something tells me Robertson will get a pricey but not insane contract the Yankees should totally match or beat, but won’t. I’ve got this terrible feeling that it will all play out similar to Martin’s free agency a few years ago. He hits the market, the Yankees talk about having interest in re-signing him, then bam, he agrees to contract with another club before New York even makes an offer. I dunno, maybe I’m just paranoid. Re-signing Robertson seems like a such an obvious move yet it hasn’t happened yet and that worries me.

5. So, with Martin and Victor Martinez signed, the Yankees are currently slated to have the 17th overall pick in next June’s draft. That is obviously still subject to change pending the other nine unsigned qualified free agents (including Robertson). The Yankees last picked that high back in 2005, when they took Oklahoma high school shortstop C.J. Henry with the 17th overall selection. Before that, you have to go all the way back to the 1993 draft to find the last time they picked that high. (The Yankees took Florida high school righty Matt Drews 13th overall in 1993.) I think the Yankees will keep their first rounder this offseason but that could always change in a heartbeat. Ownership could decide to sign Nelson Cruz out of the blue a la Rafael Soriano or something. That said, it’s not unrealistic to think the Yankees could end up with a top 15 draft pick in 2015. All it takes is two more qualified free agents changing hands, and I would bet on Hanley Ramirez and Max Scherzer wearing something other than a Dodgers and Tigers jerseys next year, respectively.

Update: I should note that because of protected picks, the Yankees will only climb into the top 15 if the Rays, Marlins, Padres, Braves, and/or Brewers forfeit picks to sign free agents. Possible but unlikely.

6. Thursday is the deadline for teams to set their 40-man rosters for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees have four open spots on the 40-man but could easily open a few more by jettisoning Zelous Wheeler, Esmil Rogers, David Huff, and/or Eury Perez. Among the team’s Rule 5 Draft eligible players this winter are Matt Tracy, Mark Montgomery, Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, Mason Williams, Kyle Roller, Danny Burawa, Tyler Austin, Branden Pinder, and Zach Nuding. Austin is the only one I feel 100% confident the team will protect, though I also expect the Yankees to protect two or three of those bullpen arms. Maybe Pinder and Burawa. Adding Williams to the 40-man just feels like something the Yankees would do too. They’ve been … let’s so proactive at protecting former top prospects in recent years, like Jose Campos last year. Williams has done nothing to earn a 40-man spot, but he was arguably the top prospect in the organization two years ago. If another team wants to see if he can stick as a fifth outfielder, fine, let them. I have no reason to think he can. The Yankees have those four open 40-man spots and I think they’ll use all of them, which means they’ll have to open other spots when they make moves later in the offseason.

Monday Night Open Thread

Buster Olney started his annual look at the top ten players at each position yesterday — not quite sure why he started it on a Sunday, but whatever — with the catchers and continued today with the first basemen. Both articles are Insider only. Brian McCann ranked eighth on the catcher list, behind Devin Mesoraco and Yan Gomes and ahead of Miguel Montero. That sounds about right to me. Mark Teixeira didn’t even make the first base list. Not even the honorable mention. From here on out, I’m guessing we’ll only see Yankees make the left field, center field, maybe starting pitcher (Masahiro Tanaka), and relief pitcher lists. That’s all.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Steelers and Titans are the Monday Night Football Game, plus the Nets and Rangers are playing. Ryan Callahan will be back in Madison Square Garden for the first time since being traded away last March. That’ll be neat. Talk about anything and everything right here.

Cashman says Yankees will “test the waters” with A-Rod at first base

Alex Rodriguez
(AP/Kathy Willens)

At the GM Meetings last week, Brian Cashman told Ken Davidoff the Yankees plan to “test the waters” with Alex Rodriguez at first base. Cashman mentioned the team spoke to A-Rod about possibly playing first a few weeks ago, and now it seems like something they will try in Spring Training.

“We’re going to get him exposed to [first base]. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a viable option. But we just want to test the waters on it,” said the GM. “I think there was an area of vulnerability for us last year that was really predicated because of the outfield alignment that we had. We had more outfielders than necessary because the guaranteed commitments that we had kicked in, so I couldn’t get a backup first baseman situation. But hopefully we can alleviate that this year.”

A-Rod has never played anywhere other than shortstop and third base in his career, and at this point, with two surgically repaired hips at age 39, there’s little reason to think he has the mobility to play the left side of the infield. Cashman and the Yankees insist they are not counting on Alex to play the field until he proved he can do it, which makes total sense. They re-signed Brendan Ryan to protect against Derek Jeter at short last offseason and I’m sure they’ll bring in a real third baseman this offseason.

Pure backup first basemen don’t really exist these days. It doesn’t make sense to waste one of four bench spots on a guy who can only play first. He has to be able to fill in at third base (like Eric Chavez) or in left field or something. The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod though, and if he’s not going to be able to play third regularly, maybe he can help at first. He’s a very smart and instinctual player. He might pick it up in no time. There’s no reason not to try Alex at first base at this point.

2014 Season Review: The Homegrown Outfielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As bad as the Yankees were in 2013, it was a very good year for Brett Gardner. Curtis Granderson‘s broken forearm and Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle guaranteed him the everyday center field and leadoff hitter jobs, roles he had filled on an off earlier in his career. For the most part he was a number nine hitting left fielder from 2008-12. Gardner took advantage by hitting a solid .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with a career-high eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013.

The Yankees rewarded Gardner’s strong season by … displacing him from center field and the leadoff spot by signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a gargantuan contract. Back to left field and the bottom of the order he went. But! The Yankees actually did reward Gardner’s strong season by giving him a nice four-year contract extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a few months before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Signing Ellsbury was about adding a very good player. Extending Gardner was about keeping a very good player.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and Gardner wound up spending the majority of the 2014 season hitting leadoff anyway. He opened the year hitting seventh or eighth on most nights, but a combination of injuries to middle of the order hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira forced Joe Girardi to bat Ellsbury third, clearing the leadoff spot for Gardner. One hundred and seven of his 141 starts this year came atop the order.

Gardner was New York’s second best player behind Robinson Cano last year, and for a big chunk of the first half, he was the team’s very best player in 2014. He hit .279/.347/.349 (100 wRC+) with a homer and seven steals in April before really hitting his stride in early-May. Starting on May 3rd — arbitrary endpoint alert! — and continuing though August 4th, a span of 82 team games, Gardner hit a stellar .292/.370/.506 (145 wRC+) with 14 homers and eleven stolen bases. Think about that for a second.

Okay, ready to continue? Miguel Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 (147 wRC+) this past season. Gardner hit approximately that over a stretch of games equal to half a season while hitting homers at a 28-per-162-games pace. That’s a thing that actually happened. Gardner put up middle of the order numbers from the leadoff spot for a three-month chunk of time. During one series against the Rangers at the end of July, he managed to hit four homers in three games:

Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS wpa_bat” data-filter=”1″ data-name=”Win Probability Added”>Win Prob. Added
Jul 28 NYY @ TEX L,2-4 5 2 3 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 .276 .352 .437 .789 0.224
Jul 29 NYY @ TEX W,12-11 5 3 4 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 .283 .357 .455 .812 0.340
Jul 30 NYY @ TEX L,2-3 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 .283 .356 .460 .816 0.008
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2014.

Two of those homers — the July 28th game — came off Yu Darvish, who Gardner had taken deep a week earlier as well. That series earned Gardner AL Player of the Week honors. On August 4th, the final day of this cherry-picked swath of games, Gardner’s season batting line sat at .286/.364/.468 (134 wRC+) with 15 homers and 18 steals in 22 attempts.

Did it last? Of course not. Gardner played through some sort of abdominal strain for most of the second half and hit a weak .159/.216/.217 (18 wRC+) in his final 40 games and 78 plate appearances of the season. That uglified his season batting line and dragged it down to .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) overall. That’s still pretty darn good, but not nearly as impressive as it was in early-August. The abdominal injury, which apparently was so bad it required offseason surgery, really ruined the final two months of his year.

Obviously, the power numbers were the most surprisingly part of Gardner’s season. His previous career high was eight homeruns set last summer. He more than doubled that and smashed 17 dingers in 2014. Some of them were Yankee Stadium cheapies of course, but Hit Tracker says 13 of the 17 would have been out in at least half the 30 ballparks. Gardner’s average homer distance was 385 feet, on par with Yoenis Cespedes (387.5 feet) and longer than 37-homer man Chris Carter (384.1 feet). He hit the Yankees’ very first homerun of the season — in their sixth game! — and he also hit the 15,000th homer in franchise history on September 21st. (No other team has even 14,000 dingers.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence six of the 17 homers came within the first two pitches of the at-bat or that 13 of the 17 came on fastballs — Gardner will straight up guess fastball and try to ambush a pitch on occasion, and every so often he runs into one. That hasn’t only resulted in more homers either, this approach has led to more doubles and triples as well. Gardner and hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged giving the ambush approach a try early last year, and look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner’s power production has jumped noticeable the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still nothing more than a league-average power producer in terms of ISO, but Gardner was a pure singles hitter from 2008-12 who can now go yard if the pitcher makes a mistake or gives him the fastball he’s looking for. That makes him a lot more dangerous at the plate. I have no idea if Gardner will ever hit 17 homers again but that’s a conversation for another time. He hit them in 2014.

In the field, Gardner appeared to be something less than his usually awesome self, both according to the eye test and the various defensive stats. He wasn’t bad by any means in left field, but he went from being truly elite in 2008-12 to being just a tick better than average in 2014. That could be the result of a million things. Gardner could legitimately be losing a step in the field, or it could have been a down year defensively. Those happen just like down years at the plate. Maybe the adjustment he had to making moving back to left after playing center isn’t as easy as we think. Who knows. Either way, Gardner was an asset in the field but not otherworldly.

Overall, Gardner was again one of the team’s best players on both sides of the ball this past season. He led Yankees’ regulars in OPS (.749), OPS+ (111), SLG (!) (.422) and wRC+ (110) while ranking either second or third in homers (17), hits (142), doubles (25), steals (21), walks (56), total bases (234), AVG (.256), and OBP (.327). Had it not been for the abdominal injury, chances are Gardner would have led the team in a bunch of those other categories as well. He’s become a rock solid player for the Yankees and is a key part of the team as they try to get back to the postseason.

Cervelli trade doesn’t guarantee Murphy backup catcher job

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the GM Meetings last week, the Yankees swung a trade sending long-time backup catcher Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for hard-throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson. It’s the third straight offseason in which a Yankees catcher has gone to the Pittsburgh — Russell Martin signed with the Pirates as a free agent during the 2012-13 offseason and the two clubs got together for the Chris Stewart trade last winter. Maybe they like the same catchers because their internal metrics are similar.

Anyway, the Yankees made the trade because they almost had to move a catcher this winter. It had gotten to the point where they simply had too many catchers for too few spots at the upper levels. Brian McCann is locked into the starting MLB job and Cervelli had a leg up on the backup spot, leaving John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez for Triple-A Scranton. That’s not really feasible. Playing time is a zero sum game — the more at-bats Sanchez gets, the fewer there are for Murphy and Romine.

Something had to give and it turned out to be Cervelli, who is two years from free agency and projected to earn $1.1M through arbitration next year. Why pay seven figures for a backup catcher — an injury prone backup catcher at that — when you have several players who can do the job for close to the league minimum? The Yankees dealt from a position of depth and added an interesting arm to the bullpen mix while shedding some salary. It’s not the type of move that will win a team a title but it helps balance the roster.

As soon as Cervelli was traded, I and I think many others considered Murphy the favorite to take over as McCann’s backup. That makes sense — Murphy was the one who got the call when Cervelli got hurt last year and Romine didn’t even get a September call-up at first. (He was called up after Cervelli got hurt in mid-September). Romine has stalled out the last year or two and Murphy has played well, especially when he first came up last April and May. He’s ready for a big league job.

There are other factors to consider, however. First and foremost, the Yankees might not be done dealing. Murphy isn’t a top trade chip but he’s a desirable piece because, again, he’s basically MLB ready. Catching is hard to find and plenty of teams will try to pry six years of Murphy away from New York if given the chance. I both would and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets traded at some point, perhaps for a shortstop. I don’t think it will happen but it wouldn’t come out left field either. Trading Murphy seems completely plausible.

Trading Murphy would free up the backup catcher’s job for Romine, though I would expect the Yankees to sign a veteran backup catcher type to compete for the job in Spring Training. Someone on a minor league contract who can fight for the job in camp then go to Triple-A Scranton to back up and mentor Sanchez (and also serve as the third catcher). The same applies to trading Romine, though he isn’t as tradeable as Murphy. Romine is likely to be out of options though — Chad Jennings heard it “does not appear” Romine will qualify for a fourth option — which opens another can of worms.

If Romine is in fact out of minor league options, he won’t be able to go to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. It’s easy to say he will be claimed because he’s a young and cheap catcher who once had some nice prospect shine, but I looked through the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, and not many catchers get claimed off waivers. In fact, there have only been nine waiver claims involving a catcher since May 2008, and three of them featured the perpetually available George Kottaras. That guy always seems to be on waivers.

Maybe the means Romine will clear waivers, or maybe it means catchers like Romine rarely hit waivers and aren’t able to be claimed in the first place. The latter seems more likely to me. The Yankees have more upper level catching depth than most teams and could be the rare club who waives someone like Romine, but the easy solution would be sending Murphy to Triple-A and letting Romine back up McCann. They have that option as well, as unlikely as it seems. Options are good though and the Yankees don’t need to make a decision now.

“We’ll see how the winter continues to shake out,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty following the Cervelli trade. “We have guys with Major League service in Romine and Murphy. So we’ll see how it all shakes out still. I’m still open to any possibilities to assist in improving our club.”

Backup catcher is very low on the offseason priority list because it is a position of depth, even after the Cervelli trade. The Yankees can roll into next season with what they have right now and be perfectly fine behind the plate. I do think Murphy has a leg up on the backup job with Romine likely to be exposed to waivers, but that’s just me. A lot can and will change in the coming months. The Cervelli trade helped clear up an organization logjam but it didn’t guarantee anyone a job either.