Managerial Search Update: Wedge, Boone, Flaherty, Cone

Wedge. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Wedge. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Two weeks and one day ago, the Yankees parted ways with longtime manager Joe Girardi. They’ve just now started interviewing managerial candidates, at least as far as we know. Here’s the latest.

Yankees interview Eric Wedge

The Yankees have interviewed former Indians and Mariners manager Eric Wedge for their managerial opening, the team announced earlier today. He joins Rob Thomson as the only candidates who we know actually interviewed for the job. Wedge, 49, managed the Indians from 2003-09 and the Mariners from 2011-13. He famously ripped the Mariners after resigning, accusing the front office of “total dysfunction and a lack of leadership.” Zoinks.

Wedge, who managed CC Sabathia for a number of years with the Indians, has spent the last few seasons working with the Blue Jays in their player development department. He was well regarded for his work with young players during his time in Cleveland, and he has a reputation for being a players’ manager, though he will get on his guys if he feels it is necessary. Wedge has made it no secret over the years he wants to get back into managing. I do like the idea of Wedge as a candidate, though he has been out of the managerial game for a few years now.

Boone a candidate for managerial opening

According to Buster Olney and Andrew Marchand, former Yankee and current ESPN television analyst Aaron Boone is a candidate for the team’s managerial opening. He of course played for the Yankees in 2003, and hit one of the biggest home runs in franchise history. The Yankees have reached out for an interview. Also, Marchand says David Ross, another ESPN analyst, may be a managerial candidate as well. Hmmm.

Boone, 44, last played in 2009 and he joined ESPN immediately after retiring. He has no coaching or managerial experience. Boone did grow up in MLB clubhouses as a third generation big leaguer, and he spent the last few seasons of his career bouncing around as a role player who received praise for his leadership. Based on his broadcasts, Boone is into analytics. Can he be an effective manager? Your guess is as good as mine.

Cone, Flaherty interested in manager’s job

Cone. (Al Bello/Getty)
Cone. (Al Bello/Getty)

Both David Cone and John Flaherty, two former Yankees turned YES Network broadcasters, have reached out to the team to let them know they’re interested in the manager’s job, reports Mike Mazzeo. “I just wanted (Brian Cashman) to know I’m at a point in my life where I would be interested in it. My agent and him have had a conversation, but it hasn’t gone any further than that,” said Flaherty. The Yankees have not gotten back to either Flaherty or Cone about an interview.

Neither Cone nor Flaherty has any coaching or managerial experience, and as fans, it’s tough to separate our opinions of them as broadcasters from their potential as managers. Just because Flaherty comes off as old school on television doesn’t mean he’d be a bad manager, the same way Cone reciting FIP and WAR doesn’t make him a good manager. Cone has been a staunch pro-labor guy throughout his career and he was heavily involved in the MLBPA. I wonder if that’ll work against him. Ownership might not love the idea of him running the clubhouse.

Thomson wants to remain with Yankees

Even if he doesn’t get the manager’s job, Thomson would like to remain with the Yankees, he told Erik Boland. “I’m a Yankee. I’ve been here 28 years and if didn’t get this job, I would certainly want to come back because this is what I consider my home. I love it here, I love the players, I love what’s going on here,” he said. Thomson, who interviewed earlier this week, has been with the Yankees since 1990 and has done basically everything there is to do in the organization. Given his existing relationships with the young players on the roster, I think Thomson is worth keeping around in some capacity.

The King of Soft Contact [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

It’s hard to believe CC Sabathia‘s time with the Yankees may very well be over. The 2017 season was the final guaranteed year on Sabathia’s contract — well, it was the vesting option year, not a guaranteed contract year — and he is currently a free agent able to sign with the highest bidder at a moment’s notice.

The Yankees won a World Series and were never truly bad during Sabathia’s nine years in pinstripes. Their worst season was 84 wins and, really, that’s not that bad. The leaderboard among Yankees pitchers from 2009-17:

  1. CC Sabathia: +28.4 WAR
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: +12.8 WAR
  3. David Robertson: +12.4 WAR
  4. Hiroki Kuroda: +12.0 WAR
  5. Mariano Rivera: +12.0 WAR

Even with the lean years from 2013-15, Sabathia has been far and away the Yankees’ best and most reliable pitcher the last nine years, and their best pitcher since peak Mike Mussina. The Yankees gave him a seven-year contract worth $161M back in the day, then essentially tacked on two years and $50M. Sabathia provided the team with $212.8M in production in exchange for that $211M in salary, per FanGraphs’ calculations. That doesn’t include the financial windfall the Yankees received following the 2009 World Series title, to which Sabathia contributed greatly.

Following those lean years from 2013-15, the now 37-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher in 2016, and he used the same approach in 2017. His 2016 and 2017 seasons were shockingly similar on a rate basis:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2016 179.2 3.91 4.28 19.8% 8.5% 50.1% 1.10
2017 148.2 3.69 4.49 19.3% 8.0% 49.9% 1.27

Sabathia allowed a few more home runs in 2017 than 2016 because, well, everyone gave up more home runs in 2017 than 2016. Despite the increase in homers, Sabathia was able to lower his ERA this year because he had more success pitching out of jams — his strand rate went from 75.7% in 2016 to 79.0% in 2017 — and also because Joe Girardi had a quicker hook. Remember how many times he left Sabathia in only to watch him allow runs in his final inning last year? That didn’t happen as much this year. His innings per start average went from 5.99 to 5.51.

Let’s dig a little more into Sabathia’s generally awesome 2017 season.

Postseason Hero

Maybe hero is too strong a word. Aside from Tanaka though, Sabathia was the Yankees’ best starter in the postseason, and the team trusted him so much that they gave him the start in Game Five of the ALDS and Game Seven of the ALCS. Look at the game log:

  • ALDS Game Two: 5.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 3 ER,, 3 BB, 5 K
  • ALDS Game Five: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
  • ALCS Game Three: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K
  • ALCS Game Seven: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K

There’s a story behind each of those starts. In ALDS Game Two, Sabathia allowed the four runs early, then settled down to retire eleven of the final 12 batters he faced. In ALDS Game Five, he dominated for four innings before the Indians were able to string together some singles in the fifth.

In ALCS Game Three, the Yankees scored early and often, and Sabathia did exactly what you want a veteran pitcher to do with a big lead. He worked quickly and kept the other team off the board, and got his offense back on the field. In ALCS Game Seven, when Sabathia clearly had no command, he somehow got through 3.1 innings while allowing just the one run.

It’s a damn shame the season ended in a Sabathia start given how well he pitched this season overall, though, to be fair, it’s hard to pin that loss on the big man. The offense scored one run total in Games Six and Seven of the ALCS. Five earned runs in 19 total innings in the postseason (2.37 ERA)? Sign me up. With Luis Severino up there in innings, Sonny Gray struggling to throw strikes, and Tanaka being a bit of an unknown going into the postseason given his rough 2017 overall, Sabathia was the steady hand in October.

King of Soft Contact

For years and years, Sabathia was a power pitcher who overwhelmed hitters with velocity, a wipeout slider, and the sheer intimidation factor that comes with being 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. As the years and innings piled up, that approach no longer worked, so last year Sabathia scrapped his four-seam fastball entirely. He started throwing a cutter. From Brooks Baseball:

cc-sabathia-fastball-selection

The cutter did a few things for Sabathia. One, it gave him a way to bust right-handed hitters inside. Righties punished him from 2013-15, but once Sabathia was able to get in on their hands, he was able to keep them at bay. And two, it allowed him to miss the barrel more often. The straight four-seamer was getting squared up far too often. The subtle movement on the cutter makes it more difficult for hitters to get the sweet spot on the ball.

As a result, Sabathia traded hard contact for soft contact last year, and this year he was again one of the best contact managers in the league. Hitters had as much trouble making hard contact against Sabathia this season than they did against guys like Corey Kluber and Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Sabathia’s rates (min. 140 IP):

  • Soft Contact: 27.2% (sixth highest)
  • Hard Contact: 24.1% (fifth lowest)
  • Average Exit Velocity: 83.9 mph (lowest)
  • Average Launch Angle: 6.2° (12th lowest) (what’s this?)

Simply put, over the last two seasons Sabathia has made it very difficult to hit the ball hard against him. When he makes mistakes, they still get crushed. That’s true for everyone. Sabathia gave up a 470-foot homer to Manny Machado back in April. It was the 19th longest homer in baseball this season.

Sabathia has been able to limit those mistakes the last two seasons. From 2013-15, there were a few too many of those each time out. Now he keeps them to a minimum. Sabathia embraced the cutter and embraced the finesse pitcher within, which he absolutely had to do to be successful at this stage of his career. He’s transformed himself as a pitcher, and now that he’s done it for a second year in a row, we know it’s not a fluke. This is who Sabathia is now. He is one of the game’s best soft contact pitchers.

2018 Outlook

Like I said, Sabathia is a free agent right now, free to sign with any team at any time. He has made it perfectly clear he wants to remain in New York, however. “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” said a very emotional Sabathia following Game Seven of the ALCS.

There are reasons the Yankees should re-sign Sabathia and reasons to stay away. They do need a fifth starter, and Tanaka not opting out means getting a big name like Yu Darvish or even Alex Cobb won’t happen without blowing up the luxury tax plan. Sabathia won’t cost a ton and won’t require a long-term contract, plus there won’t be an adjustment period of any kind. He knows the ropes and knows New York. Plug him into the rotation and go.

On the other hand, Sabathia is 37, and his balky right knee won’t get better. Sabathia has admitted he’ll likely need a knee replacement after his playing days are over. He did miss a few starts this season when the knee acted up. Also, Sabathia doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore. He’ll get through five and maybe six on a good day, and that’s pretty much it. As with all players this age, Sabathia could lose it any moment.

The offseason is still young and right now the Yankees seem to be focused on finding a new manager and coaching staff. That’s kinda important. Hard to make a good pitch to free agents when they don’t know who the manager or coaching staff will be. I get the sense Sabathia is in no rush to sign a new contract. I think he wants to see if things can be worked out with the Yankees, and if not, he’ll find a home elsewhere. If this is the end, Sabathia was a great Yankee. I hope he comes back for another season though.

Mailbag: Otani, Luxury Tax, Pineda, Castro, Lind, Lucroy, Torres

A dozen questions and eleven answers in this week’s mailbag. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send all your questions throughout the week.

Otani. (AP)
Otani. (AP)

John asks: Considering the money limits placed on signing Otani, I imagine teams will get creative. What can they do? Can they throw in all the lifestyle perks stars get like flying family around and whatever else they throw in? Can they informally agree to an extension that will get him paid for real as soon as possible? Or will his decision have to come down to hitting and comfort level?

Keith asks: Are there any rules or guidelines that dictate how long Otani’s contract must be? Can he come over and sign a one year deal and then break the bank the following winter?

Going to lump these two together. The international spending rules, which apply to Otani, strictly prohibit perks and non-monetary payments. You can’t promise to call a player up by a certain date, or to sign him to an extension by a certain date, or provide travel/housing for the player and his family, things like that. Ben Badler has the breakdown. I suspect MLB will be on high alert with Otani too. Anything that looks fishy will get flagged. He gets a standard rate minor league contract like everyone else. No multi-year deals or anything.

I suppose the two sides could agree to an extension under the table, though given everything going on with the Braves right now, I don’t think anyone will risk it. Reports indicate MLB wants Otani treated like any other rookie, and if he signs an extension at some point, they want it to be in line with the established market. The largest extension given to a player with one year of service time is seven years and $58M. That went to Andrelton Simmons. Want to sign Otani long-term after Year One? That’s the benchmark.

Here’s the thing though: Simmons signed his contract four years ago. The market has changed since then. Inflation exists. Last year Indians GM Mike Cherboff’s young son spilled the beans that the team was trying to give Francisco Lindor a $100M extension, when he had one year of service time. Shouldn’t that be the benchmark for Otani? If he goes out and, say, hits .250/.330/.450 with 20 homers and throws 140 innings with a 3.75 ERA in 2017, how in the world could MLB argue he’s not a $100M or even a $150M player?

Brandon asks: Have the Yankees publicly indicated that they are willing to go over the luxury threshold after getting under the limit? It is clear that they want to get under, but who’s to say they will go back to their free spending ways afterward? I recall Hal saying something to the effect of you can field a WS team under the threshold. This could be justification for getting under the cap or justification on staying under the cap. Thoughts?

Hal Steinbrenner‘s standard line is “you don’t need a $200M payroll to win the World Series.” The Yankees haven’t said anything indicating they will go back over the luxury tax threshold in the future after getting under and resetting their tax rate next year, though I wouldn’t expect them to say that anyway. It could only hurt them during contract negotiations.

The general assumption seems to be the Yankees will go back over the luxury tax threshold as soon as 2019, when Manny Machado and Bryce Harper become free agents, though I’m not convinced it’ll happen. Hal seems pretty dead set on getting under the threshold and not going wild with a $250M or so payroll. Then again, isn’t that the point? To give yourself some leverage by giving the appearance of holding a hard line? I’m not entirely convinced the Yankees will go go back over the threshold in the future. Everything Hal says is calculated though. He’s no dummy.

Mark asks: Do you think the Yankees sign Michael Pineda to a low risk two-year contract? Something like Lindgren and Eovaldi signed with other teams? Or is he old news?

I don’t see it happening. It’ll chew up payroll space under the luxury tax threshold for a pitcher who won’t pitch in 2018. Or at least won’t pitch until late in the season. The Rays gave Nathan Eovaldi a one-year deal worth $2M with a club option for a second year, so that’s the going rate for a guy like Pineda. Problem is, that’s $2M you can’t spend elsewhere on the roster given the luxury tax plan. In principle, I’m totally cool with giving Pineda an Eovaldi contract and rehabbing him. I just don’t see the Yankees spending finite luxury tax payroll dollars on a guy who won’t pitch much, if at all, next year.

Gary & Greg. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Gary & Greg. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Bart asks: How many home runs combined do you think Judge, Sanchez, and Bird will hit in 2018? Is your over/under number 105? 115? 120? What number would be good, great, or in-your-wildest-dreams? What great 3-player home run combos can you think of?

As much as I love Aaron Judge, and as great as he is, I don’t think it’s fair to expect any player to hit 50+ home runs in back-to-back years. Fifty is a huge number. The last player to hit 50+ in back-to-back years was Alex Rodriguez in 2001 (52) and 2002 (57). Sammy Sosa did it in 2000 (50) and 2001 (64). Barry Bonds hit 50 once in his career. Jim Thome only did it once. Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have zero combined 50-homer seasons.

Realistically, if Judge hits 40-45 homers next season, I’ll be thrilled. Hitting 35-40 would be awesome even if it would represent a big step down from his 2017 output. How about this for their 2018 homer totals?

That gives us a range of 90-105. Super optimistic scenario has them hitting what, 120 dingers combined? That means Bird has to stay healthy, of course. Only 17 trios of teammates in history have combined to hit 120+ homers in a season. Jermaine Dye (44), Thome (42), and Paul Konerko (35) combined for 121 with the 2006 White Sox, the most recent team to do it. Here are the top four homer hitting trio of teammates in history:

  1. 1961 Yankees (143): Roger Maris (61), Mickey Mantle (54), Moose Skowron (28)
  2. 2001 Giants (132): Bonds (73), Rich Aurilia (37), Jeff Kent (22)
  3. 1997 Rockies (130): Larry Walker (49), Andres Galarraga (41), Vinny Castilla (40)
  4. 1996 Mariners (129): Ken Griffey Jr. (49), Jay Buhner (44), A-Rod (36)

Four teams are tied for fifth with three players combining to his 127 homers in a season (1996 Rockies, 1997 Mariners, 1998 Cardinals, 1998 Mariners). The Yankees got 110 homers out of their top three homer hitters in 2017 (Judge, Sanchez, Didi Gregorius), and that’s with Judge hitting 53. Getting 110 from Judge, Sanchez, and Bird next season would be pretty awesome in my book.

Steve asks: You’re Yankee GM and have 2 offers sitting in front of you for Starlin Castro. One is a package of MLB ready low ceiling depth guys that can solve some problems for the 2018 Yankees. The other offer is a package of lower level high ceiling prospects that could restock the farm system. Given the state of the Yankee 40 man roster, which offer do you choose?

High ceiling guys for sure. The Yankees, even after all the trades and graduations, still have a deep farm system with a lot of lower ceiling guys on the cusp of helping at the MLB level, like Billy McKinney and Thairo Estrada and Nick Solak. They don’t need more of them. Give me the upside guys in the lower levels. Shoot for the moon. The Yankees have been much better at developing players the last few years — maybe that will no longer be the case with Gary Denbo gone, but who knows — so show faith in your people and go for the high ceilings.

Now, that said, I’m not sure Castro has a ton of trade value right now. He is now closer to free agency and more expensive than when the Yankees got him two years ago. And he’s the same damn player.

  • Last two years with Cubs: .278/.318/.406 (98 wRC+) and +1.9 WAR per 600 PA
  • First two years with Yankees: .283/.317/.442 (101 wRC+) and +1.6 WAR per 600 PA

Surely the Yankees acquired Castro hoping he’d take his game to another level as he entered what should be the prime years of his career, but it hasn’t really happened. Starlin’s not a bad player. He’s not a great player either. He’s … okay. Ideally he’s the seventh or eighth best hitter in your lineup, not one of the top three. The Yankees got Castro for Adam Warren two years ago. Realistically, is he worth more than that now?

Seth asks: Since we already have big money committed to the bullpen in Chapman and Robertson, can you see Cashman trading for a cost-controlled lefty reliever instead of signing one like Jake McGee and Mike Minor? I feel like those guys could cost too much for their worth. Someone with years of control like the Orioles’ Donnie Hart or the Diamondbacks’ Andrew Chafin would probably cost a lot but it might be worth it in the long run.

Finding a long-term left-on-left reliever shouldn’t be much of a priority. Those guys generally have such a short MLB shelf life. Very few lefty relievers — relievers in general, really — get through their six years of team control before breaking down and/or losing effectiveness. Lefties like McGee and Jerry Blevins are the exception. Minor was a starter all those years, remember. This was his first season as a full-time reliever. Two years ago Chasen Shreve looked like a potential long-term keeper. Before him it was Phil Coke. Heck, look at Justin Wilson. He just stopped throwing strikes one day. When it goes, it goes quick. Finding a young controllable lefty reliever would be swell. I wouldn’t prioritize it though. Seems like a fool’s errand looking someone like that.

Lind. (Patrick McDermott/Getty)
Lind. (Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Anonymous asks: Adam Lind as DH/1B insurance?

Eh. I’m not sure carrying two left-handed hitting first base/DH only guys on the roster makes sense. Bird is already holding down one spot. I know DH is open, but I don’t love tying that down with one player. At the same time, it would be smart to bring in some first base insurance given Bird’s injury history. I’m just not sure you can squeeze him and Lind onto the same roster. A right-handed first baseman would make more sense, or a lefty hitter who could play the outfield or maybe even some third base would be a better fit. With a four-man bench — it’s a three-man bench a lot of times during the season — having two so similarly limited players doesn’t seem like the best idea.

Robert asks: Writers sometimes use the year after effect to refer to pitchers experiencing a slump or even injury the year after their workload jumps drastically. I know Sevi had a large jump in workload and innings this past season. I was honestly surprised by how much the Yankees allowed his workload to increase. Is this something to worry about with him this coming season?

Yes in that every pitcher is a risk to get hurt, and young pitchers who increased their workloads from one year to the next are more at risk (in theory). Luis Severino went from 151.1 innings in 2016 to 209.1 innings in 2017. That’s a 58-inning increase. It’s an increase of 47.2 innings from 2015, his previous career high. Among the pitchers who, like Severino, threw 190+ innings at age 23 are Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw, who became workhorses. The list also includes Patrick Corbin and Jair Jurrjens, who broke down the very next year.

Pitcher injuries are not really something you can predict or 100% prevent. All you can do is take precautions and hope for the best. The Yankees aren’t dumb. They are one of the most analytical teams in baseball. I’m sure they kept an eye on Severino throughout the season for signs of fatigue, including monitoring his spin rates and things like that, and made the best decision they could. And, to be fair, it wasn’t until his very last start that I thought Severino looked worn down. He looked good in the ALDS. The Yankees didn’t throw caution to the wind. They kept an eye on Severino and did what they thought was best. That’s all you can do. That and hope you get a little lucky.

RJ asks: Mike, what are your thoughts about bringing in Jonathan Lucroy as a backup/DH/1B/mentor to the Kraken and what looks like a young pitching staff? He was an elite pitch framer and was very good offensively a few years ago, but obviously if agreed to such role. Take the savings from Holiday and pay Lucroy a little extra or incentives in the contract if he becomes the starter. Still only 31. He can be our David Ross.

Any half-decent free agent catcher is going to look for more playing time elsewhere before settling for sporadic playing time as Sanchez’s backup. Lucroy is only 31 and as recently as 2016 he hit .292/.355/.500 (123 wRC+). He was awful in 2017 (82 wRC+), but he’s not old and you don’t need to look far back to see his last great season. I have to think Lucroy will look for a starting job somewhere before considering backup catcher opportunities. Adding Lucroy as an extremely overqualified backup would be great. I’d love it. Lucroy is a fit for the Yankees. The Yankees aren’t a fit for Lucroy though. Someone will give him a chance to start.

Jon asks: Do you think the Yankees would consider just releasing Ellsbury if they can’t find a trade partner (even with covering most of his salary)? It seems like opening a spot for Frazier, Hicks, etc. would still outweigh keeping him on the roster simply because he’s making a salary.

No. Not with three years left on the contract. Maybe if there was only one year left on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract, they’d think about releasing him. Not with three. If they can’t move him this winter, the Yankees will just keep Ellsbury and go into the season with him as the fourth outfielder. One injury and he’s starting again, and hopefully he goes on a hot streak at some point and carries the team for a bit. Eating money to move Ellsbury and open a roster spot makes sense. It’s probably a little too soon to consider eating every last dollar and flat out releasing him though. Surely some team would give the Yankees a prospect if they were willing to eat the entire contract, right?

Jonathan asks: I have been hearing how Gleyber Torres is amazing. Number one prospect in baseball, 65 on the 20 to 80 scale, perennial all star potential, etc. But publications are projecting him to be a 270 hitter with 20-25 home runs and solid defense. That’s good but how is that an all star? I thought with a 65 hit tool and 55 power, we would be looking at a 300-325 with 25-30 home runs. Which one is true? My version is worth the hype of the number one prospect in baseball, the others seem not to be. Please explain.

I can’t remember seeing any reports that call Torres a .270 hitter with 20-25 homer power. At least not recent reports. MLB.com has Gleyber at 65 hit and 55 power, which projects out to .290-.300 AVG and 20-ish homers. (Maybe that’s 25+ homers with the juiced ball?) Keep in mind these grades are almost always conservative and undersell the player. They had Judge with 60 power coming into the season. No. Just … no. Between his approach, his bat-to-ball skills, and his ability to make adjustments, Torres absolutely projects to a .300 hitter in my opinion. At his peak, anyway. He might not hit .300 as a 21-year-old in the big leagues in 2018. Long-term, Gleyber has legit .300/.380/.500 potential in my book, not to mention the skills to play very good defense. That is top five prospect in the game worthy.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Earlier today the Yankees announced details for their 2018 holiday ticket sale. You can find all the information right here. Buried within the release, the Yankees say all Monday to Thursday home games next April will begin at 6:35pm ET, not 7:05pm ET. They’re testing out the new start time to see whether families have an easier time taking their kids to game. The problem? It can be pretty hard to get from the office to the ballpark in time for first pitch as it is. Lots of people are going to miss the first few innings with the new start time. We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s the open thread for the night. The Seahawks and Cardinals are the Thursday NFL game, plus the Devils are playing too. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.

Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

Adams. (The Citizens' Voice)
Adams. (The Citizens’ Voice)

Now that the 2017season is over, the crew at Baseball Prospectus is storming through their annual look at the top ten prospects (plus more) in each farm system. Yesterday they hit the Yankees. From what I can tell, the entire article is free. You don’t need a subscription to read the commentary.

“A year after being deadline sellers, the Yankees thinned out their farm with graduations and a pair of July 31st buys. The system is down a little, but has an elite 1-2 punch at the top and a bonanza of high-upside teenagers further down the organizational totem pole,” said the write-up. Here’s the top ten:

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

Both OF Clint Frazier and UTIL Tyler Wade exhausted their rookie eligibility this season, which is why they’re not in the top ten. Frazier exceeded the 130 at-bat rookie limit (he finished with 134) while Wade accrued too much service time. The rookie limit is 45 days outside the September roster expansion period. Wade finished with 50 such days, by my unofficial count. Anyway, some thoughts.

1. A year ago at this time the farm system was very position player heavy. The top four and six of the top nine prospects in the system were position players, per Baseball Prospectus. Six of my top eight were position players. Now Baseball Prospectus has seven pitchers among the top ten prospects in the organization. Furthermore, six prospects in the 11-20 range are pitchers as well. That’s a lot of quality arms! And the Yankees are going to need them too. Pitchers break down, they fail to develop a third pitch, etc. There are so many things that can derail development. Plus young pitching is the best currency in baseball. It can get you almost anything you want at the trade deadline. We could start to see the system strength shift from position players to pitchers earlier this year. Now this is damn close to a pitcher first farm system.

2. Speaking of pitchers, where’s RHP Jorge Guzman? He’s not mentioned in the Baseball Prospectus write-up at all. Not in the top ten, not in the next ten, nothing. In the comments it was explained the Yankees have a deep system and Guzman essentially got squeezed out by the numbers crunch, though I’m not sure I agree with him not being a top 20 prospect in the system. Heck, he’s in my top ten right now. When you have Medina in the top ten and RHP Roansy Contreras in the next ten, it’s tough to understand why Guzman isn’t there. He’s a more polished version of those guys, relatively speaking. Perhaps his age is the problem? Guzman will turn 22 in January and he’s yet to pitch in a full season league. That happens when you don’t sign until 18. I dunno. They don’t check IDs on the mound. If you can get outs, it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 31 or 41. Guzman’s stuff is as good as anyone’s in the system and he made great strides with his command and secondary pitches in 2017. Seems like a top ten prospect to me.

3. OF Pablo Olivares got some love. He’s been a little sleeper favorite of mine the last two years. The 19-year-old struggled in his quick stint with Low-A Charleston last season, but he .311/.420/.424 (149 wRC+) with 10.7% walks and 13.4% strikeouts in complex ball from 2016-17. Olivares is one of those guys who does a little of everything but nothing exceptionally well. “I project him to at least average across the board, led by a future 55 hit tool … (When) patient, he took walks and drove pitches to center and oppo. He’s bigger than his listed 6-foot, 160 pounds (likely closer to 170), and while just an average runner, his reads and instincts in center are good enough to stick with an average arm. With maturity and some added strength, he at least has a chance to see 50 power,” said the write-up, which included Olivares as a prospect in the 11-20 range of the farm system. I like him. I think he’ll establish himself as a no-doubt top 15 prospect in the system in 2018. There’s a “Thairo Estrada but an outfielder” quality to Olivares.

4. My favorite feature of Baseball Prospectus’ annual prospect write-ups are the “top talents 25 and under” lists. The ten best players in the organization no older than 25, basically. Straightforward, right? New York’s list has Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino in the 1-2-3 spots in that order, then slide the top ten prospects behind them. Noticeably absent: Greg Bird. Hmmm. I assume the injuries are the reason Bird was omitted from the top 25 and under talents — “As per usual, his future outlook depends almost entirely on his health,” said the write-up — but even considering that, I still feel like he belongs in the top ten somewhere. Why would injuries knock Bird out of the top ten but not, say, Abreu? He had injury problems of his own this year and he’s never pitched above High-A. Bird is quite risky given his injury history. He’s also shown he can be a productive big leaguer when healthy. Not sure I agree with knocking him down the list below prospects, who themselves are inherently risky.

Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

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

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.

The Official RAB 2017-18 Offseason Plan

"Wait, what did that idiot at RAB say we should do?" (Presswire)
“Wait, what did that idiot at RAB say we should do?!?” (Presswire)

One week ago yesterday, the Astros clinched the first World Series championship in franchise history. There are now three months of offseason to go before Spring Training begins. Free agents are free to sign with any team as of Tuesday morning, though it’ll be a few weeks before the hot stove really picks up. That’s how the offseason usually goes.

So, with the offseason still young, it’s time to put together our official RAB Offseason Plan. Last year’s plan was dumb. Among my moves: signing Mark Melancon, trading Luis Severino (and more!) for Sonny Gray, and trading Brett Gardner for Jaime Garcia. Why does anyone read this website? On the bright side, I nailed the whole “Gray and Garcia could be fits for the Yankees” thing. Yay?

Last offseason we had to make some assumptions about payroll. That is not the case this year. We know the Yankees are going to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold in 2018. They wanted to get under the threshold a few years ago, but it didn’t happen. The Yankees won’t miss out on another opportunity. Our payroll limit for next year is $197M. That part is easy. No more assumptions.

One thing I will not do in this post is hire a new manager and coaching staff. Evaluating a manager — or a pitching coach, or a third base coach, or a bullpen coach — is basically impossible as an outsider. I’m not even going to attempt to cobble together a coaching staff. It’s a waste of energy. That’s all I have to say about the coaching staff. Let’s get on with the offseason plan, shall we?

Rule 5 Draft Protection

Not the sexiest place to start, but a place to start. The Rule 5 Draft protection deadline is the next upcoming offseason deadline anyway. The Yankees got a head start on their Rule 5 Draft protection this year by calling up Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade at midseason. There are still several others who need to be added though. Here’s my protection list:

  • Add to 40-man: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Thairo Estrada, Billy McKinney, Gleyber Torres
  • Leave exposed in Rule 5 Draft: Abi Avelino, Nestor Cortes, Rashad Crawford, J.P. Feyereisen, Mike Ford, Anyelo Gomez, Johnny Loaisiga, Alex Palma, Stephen Tarpley

There seems to be some confusion about Gleyber’s Rule 5 Draft status. Some are saying he’s not eligible and others (me) are saying he is. Rule 5 Draft status can be confusing for international players. In this case, we have an easy reference point. Mets shortstop Amed Rosario signed at 16 on July 2nd, 2012. He was added the 40-man roster last offseason because he was Rule 5 Draft eligible. Torres signed at 16 on July 2nd, 2013, so he should be Rule 5 Draft this offseason. Rosario is the benchmark here. Gleyber’s going on the 40-man roster.

Of course Gleyber gets protected. (Scranton Times Tribune)
Of course Gleyber gets protected. (Scranton Times Tribune)

Abreu and Acevedo are two of the best pitching prospects in the system, so they’re getting protected. Teams are more willing to grab a Single-A kid and stash him on the MLB roster all season no matter how poorly he performs (coughPadrescough), which is why Abreu has to be protected. In the past, he’d be someone you could leave unprotected because you know he’d be coming back even if he did get picked. McKinney seemed to come into his own this season and after having success at Triple-A, he’s prime Rule 5 Draft fodder. Can’t lose him for nothing. He gets protected. Estrada is a personal favorite, but beyond that, he’s a strong defensive middle infielder who can hit a little, and had success at Double-A in 2017. That’s someone I want to keep. Give me those up-the-middle athletes.

Among the players I’m leaving exposed, the only tough-ish decision for me was Johnny Lasagna. He’s been getting a lot of hype lately, but, at the end of the day, he has a lengthy injury history and he’s thrown exactly 2.1 innings above the short season leagues. If a team wants to pop Loaisiga in the Rule 5 Draft and see whether he can stick next year, let them. Odds are he’ll be offered back at some point. Feyereisen and Cortes will both get selected, I think. I could see Cortes throwing like 140 innings for his hometown Marlins next year. I just don’t have room for either guy on the 40-man. Gomez is the sleeper here. He had a great 2017 season (1.92 ERA and 2.19 FIP at four levels) and has lively stuff (mid-90s heat, good changeup). I bet someone grabs him. When you have a really good farm system, you can’t protect everyone. C’est a la vie.

At the moment the Yankees have two open 40-man roster spots, so we need to open three more to accommodate our five Rule 5 Draft protections. To open those spots, I am outrighting Austin Romine, Garrett Cooper, and Chasen Shreve. Romine will elect free agency should he clear waivers. Cooper and Shreve have never been outrighted before, so they can’t elect free agency if they clear waivers. Shreve will get claimed because he’s left-handed and breathing. Cooper probably slips through. (I prefer Tyler Austin as my righty first base bat.) Either way, those are my three 40-man roster casualties.

Arbitration

Given the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold, arbitration is a pretty big deal this offseason. I mean, it is every offseason, but especially this one. The Yankees have a pretty significant arbitration class and these guys will chew up a sizeable chunk of the payroll. Here are my arbitration payouts:

It is extension time for Gregorius. I gave him a five-year deal worth $42.5M as part of last year’s offseason plan, but since that didn’t happen in real life, we’ve got to try again this offseason. Jean Segura’s five-year, $70M deal with the Mariners is the template here. Segura was coming off a better season when he signed that deal, but Didi has the better overall body of work, and there’s a year’s worth of inflation to consider. Shortstops who are above-average on both sides of the ball and are still only 27 are worth long-term investments. It’s time.

Everyone else’s arbitration salary is set at their MLBTR projection. Easy enough, right? Maybe there’s some wiggle room here — could the Yankees get Gray at, say, $6.3M instead of $6.6M? Maybe. I’ll stick with the MLBTR projections. Romine and Shreve would’ve been arbitration-eligible too, had we not cut them loose to open 40-man roster space for Rule 5 Draft players.

Free Agents

The new backup catcher. (Jon Durr/Getty)
The new backup catcher. (Jon Durr/Getty)

Okay, now comes the fun stuff. This offseason the Yankees don’t need a major shopping spree to bolster the roster. They only need a few tweaks. “Is there a lot of heavy lifting necessary? No. But we’re always trying to be better,” said Brian Cashman the other day, which is how I see things. The core is in place. We’re looking for complementary players. A supporting cast. I’m making only three Major League free agent signings this winter:

  • CC Sabathia: Two years, $20M.
  • Yusmeiro Petit: One year, $3M.
  • Rene Rivera: One year, $2M.

Boring! Sorry if you were hoping for Yu Darvish or J.D. Martinez or Wade Davis or something. This isn’t a great free agent class, and with the luxury tax threshold a consideration, there’s not much payroll room for a big signing. Not once Masahiro Tanaka decided to stick around. Here’s my rationale.

1. Meeting Sabathia halfway. The Sabathia deal is all about compromise. I was originally penciling him in for a one-year deal worth $14M or so, but I get the sense he’s going to push for two guaranteed years. I’m reluctant to do that. With Sabathia talking so much about how much he wants to stay in New York — “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” he said after the ALCS Game Seven loss to the Astros — he’s got to meet me halfway. I’m trading that second guaranteed year for a lower average annual value (and luxury tax hit). Sabathia’s made a fortune already. This is money his kids and his kids’ kids won’t even be able to spend. He trades a little less cash for the second guaranteed year, the comfort of home, and playing for an upstart contending team.

2. Filling out the bullpen. As things stand, six of the seven bullpen spots are taken. There are the Plan A relievers (Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green) and the Plan B relievers (Betances, Kahnle, Warren). It would be easy — and understandable — to leave that seventh spot open for a younger bullpen arm and treat it as a shuttle spot. Maybe Ben Heller gets it, or Domingo German, or Nick Rumbelow, or whoever. I’d rather sign Petit, who threw 91.1 innings with a 2.76 ERA (2.85 FIP) and great strikeout (28.5%) and walk (5.1%) rates for the Angels this year. He’d give the Yankees another multi-inning reliever along with Green and Warren, which will come in handy should the team decide to take it easy on their starters given their workloads this year. Petit’s done it all over the years. Start, long man, middle reliever … he even closed some in 2017. He’s had a tough time getting contracts the last few offseasons — last year he didn’t sign his minor league deal with the Angels until February — but I really like the idea of him as the seventh reliever. Besides, you know there will injuries. The young guys like Heller and German will still get their chances.

3. A new backup catcher. No, Rivera is not the most exciting choice for backup catcher, but … it’s the backup catcher. The 34-year-old spent time in the Yankees farm system years ago — while with Double-A Trenton in 2010, Rivera hit the first ever professional home run allowed by Stephen Strasburg — and he’s a veteran dude who can kinda sorta hit (91 wRC+ in 2017) while doing things well behind the plate. His arm is strong (37% caught stealing) and his overall defensive numbers have been very good in recent years. Plus Rivera has a reputation for working well with young pitchers. Noah Syndergaard credited Rivera for helping him become a better pitcher after he served as his personal catcher in 2016. And who knows, maybe he’ll mentor Gary Sanchez and get him to take his defensive game to the next level too. That’d be neat. If nothing else, you can count on Rivera to be very good behind the plate, and he might even hit a little too. That represents an upgrade over what Romine gave the Yankees in 2017.

Trades

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
Yelich. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Gosh, I love trades. They’re so fun. They’re essentially a challenge — I think the players you’re giving me will help me more than the players I’m giving you — and there are so many more roster ramifications to analyze. You’re adding players and subtracting players at the same time. Trades are fun! Here are my offseason trades:

  • Clint Frazier, Chance Adams, Domingo Acevedo, and Nick Solak to the Marlins for Christian Yelich.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury and $53.7M ($17.9M per year from 2018-20) to the D’Backs for Kirby Bellow.
  • Jonathan Holder to the Cardinals for Breyvic Valera.
  • Bryan Mitchell to the Pirates for Daniel Zamora.

(Reminder: my trade proposals suck.)

One blockbuster, one salary dump, and two minor trades. Let’s break these down.

1. Capitalizing on the Marlins’ fire sale. Everyone is focused on Giancarlo Stanton and understandably so. He’s awesome and pairing him with Aaron Judge would be a lot of fun. I’m looking at Miami’s other stud outfielder though. Yelich is very good himself and, to me, he fits the Yankees better than Stanton. Stanton adds more strikeouts to the lineup and another corner bat. Strikeouts aren’t the end of the world, but I’d like fewer of them in the lineup going forward, not more.

Yelich is two years younger, substantially cheaper, and more well-rounded than Stanton. And not as good! But he’s still really good himself. Yelich turns 26 next month and he hit .282/.369/.439 (115 wRC+) with 18 homers, 16 steals in 18 attempts, 11.5% walks, and 19.7% strikeouts in 2017. And it was his worst MLB season. In Yelich, the Yankees would be getting an all-fields left-handed hitter …


Source: FanGraphs
… who doesn’t need a platoon partner, is starting to figure out how to pull the ball for power, adds a lot of value on the bases, and plays good center field defense. He’s a rich man’s Gardner, basically. And you’re getting him in the prime of his career — I think he’s on the cusp of becoming a .300/.400/.480 guy who goes 25/25 — and on a very favorable contract. Yelich is owed $7M in 2018, $9.75M in 2019, $12.5M in 2020, and $14M in 2021. His contract also includes a $15M club option ($1.25M buyout) for 2022. It’s a $44.5M guarantee for his age 26-29 seasons from 2018-21, plus you get the 2022 option. Sign me the hell up.

My original plan coming into this exercise was to add Edinson Volquez to the Yelich trade to lower the prospect cost. The Marlins are looking to shed significant payroll this winter — they reportedly may get it down to $55M or so (yikes!) — and the last thing a team looking to cut payroll wants is a $13M pitcher who won’t pitch. Volquez had Tommy John surgery in August. He won’t pitch next year. I was thinking we’d take on Volquez and, say, $10M of his $13M salary, and give up a prospect like Freicer Perez rather than Adams. It just doesn’t work financially though. We can’t fit Volquez under the luxury tax threshold. I mean, we could, it would just mean no Gregorius extension and no Petit. No Volquez means there’s even some leftover cash to use on a bat, though I don’t love the available low cost bats this winter.

Given their plan to slash payroll and strip the roster down, I imagine the Marlins want cheap MLB ready young players in return in any trade. In this deal they’d be getting an MLB ready player (Frazier), a damn near MLB ready player (Adams), a two close to MLB ready players (Solak, Acevedo). I feel like the offer is a little light, but according to MLB.com, the Yankees would be giving up their No. 2 (Adams), No. 6 (Acevedo), and No. 8 (Solak) prospects in addition to Frazier, who was a top 25 global prospect before exhausting his rookie eligibility late this year. The Yankees are still loaded with prospects even after this year’s graduations and trades, plus I’m not the world’s biggest Adams fan given his inability to get ground balls (41.4% in Triple-A) and less than stellar numbers against lefties (42/35 K/BB in 2017), so I’m using that prospect depth to get Yelich. I worry Adams is in for a world of hurt once he gets to Yankee Stadium. I’d rather use him to get a cornerstone type bat in Yelich, who is a two-way impact player that fits in perfectly with the youth movement and gives the Yankees what I think the lineup needs (another lefty bat and more contact).

(Here’s the other thing about Yelich: he wouldn’t stand in the way of signing Bryce Harper next offseason. The 2018 season is the final guaranteed year on Gardner’s contract. Depending how his season goes, the Yankees could move on from him, then add Harper to the cost controlled Yelich and still dirt cheap pre-arbitration Judge. I don’t think you can do things this offseason designed to make room for Harper. But adding Yelich wouldn’t stand in the way of signing Harper. Trading for Stanton would given his contract and the fact he’s another corner outfielder.)

2. Goodbye, Jacoby. Realistically, there’s no way to trade Ellsbury without it hurting. Either the Yankees have to eat a lot of money or take on a bad contract in return. I’m just looking to unload the salary, and the proposed trade turns him into a $4M a year player for the Diamondbacks. Bellow is included in the trade only because the Yankees have to get something in return per league rules. He’s a 25-year-old fringe lefty reliever prospect who had a 3.63 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 39.2 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2017. I’m hoping Ellsbury accepts a trade to the D’Backs, a contending team that could put him in the lineup right away given J.D. Martinez’s free agency. And, with A.J. Pollock due to hit free agency next year, there’s a path to Ellsbury staying in center field too. I dunno. I’m out of ideas. Maybe the Mariners make more sense? I feel like Ellsbury would only approve a trade to a no-doubt contender, and Arizona did win 93 games this year, so yeah. Point is, I’m eating all that money to save $4M a year from 2018-20. getting Bellow back is a non-factor. Trading Ellsbury opens a roster spot and basically clears enough payroll space under the luxury tax threshold to extend Didi.

3. What is a Breyvic Valera? Valera is a personal favorite. He’s a rich man’s Ronald Torreyes, basically. Switch-hitting contact machine who can play anywhere. Valera hit .314/.368/.450 (113 wRC+) with eight homers, eleven steals, 7.2% strikeouts, and 8.1% walks in Triple-A this past season, and he’s played every position other than pitcher or catcher in his career. He’s only 25 too. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Valera as the No. 29 prospect in the Cardinals’ system prior to 2017, and their scouting report called him “compellingly average at everything.” I thought that was amusing. St. Louis really needs bullpen arms and Holder has a chance to pitch in this league for a long time. Maybe they’ll turn him into the next Wade Davis or something. He fits their needs. Valera makes a ton of contact and has some power, and any time a guy can do that, he has a chance to really contribute. Add in the switch-hitting and defensive versatility and it’s a no-brainer for me. In all likelihood Valera is a utility player long-term. Every once in a while a guy with this skill set turns into Ben Zobrist or Jose Ramirez though.

Valera. (Denis Poroy/Getty)
Valera. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

4. The obligatory Pirates trade. Gotta make a trade with the Pirates right? The Yankees and Pirates get together for a deal every offseason, it seems. Mitchell is on the 40-man roster chopping block and the Pirates love love love their live arm reclamation projects. He fits their mold. Zamora, 24, is a slightly better than fringy left-on-left reliever prospect. That’s about Mitchell’s trade value at this point. The Pirates selected Zamora in the 40th round of the 2015 draft and he had a 1.76 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 56.1 innings split between High-A and Double-A in 2017. Lefties hit .232/.284/.261 with a 33.3% strikeout rate against him. Here is a free scouting report from Baseball Prospectus. Slider seems workable. Maybe the Yankees can unlock a little more velocity? Getting Zamora is better than putting Mitchell on waivers and getting nothing.

All told, those trades open three 40-man roster spots. We traded five 40-man players (Frazier, Acevedo, Ellsbury, Holder, Mitchell) for two 40-man players (Yelich, Valera). Those three open spots go to our three free agent signings (Sabathia, Petit, Rivera). We’ll have to open space every time we add a player from here on out.

Minor League Contracts

Everyone’s favorite part of the offseason. The Yankees, like every other team, sign stashable Triple-A depth players to minor league deals throughout the winter. Fans complain when they sign, complain when they play in Spring Training, complain when they get called up, and complain when they get designated for assignment because they hit a home run that one time. Seen it a thousand times.

Based on the depth chart as well as my offseason moves, the Yankees don’t need much in Triple-A. There are no glaring lineup needs. The projected starters right now:

Prospects at nearly every position! The RailRiders need a backup catcher and a utility guy who can play anywhere and sit for a few days at a time without disrupting his development. Also, I’d rather sign a veteran innings dude than stick Sheffield in the Triple-A rotation right out of the gate — a little more Double-A time wouldn’t be the end of the world for him — and I don’t want guys like Will Carter and Brody Koerner to be Plan A in the Scranton rotation. Here are my minor league signings (here’s the minor league free agents list):

  • RHP Christian Binford: Former Futures Gamer! Binford prior to the 2014 Futures Game: 2.53 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 266.2 innings. Binford since the 2014 Futures Game: 5.31 ERA (4.99 FIP) in 456.1 innings. Yikes! Binford is only 24 and he’s thrown 140-ish innings in four of the last five seasons, so he fits as the innings guy. Plus he’s young and had prospect shine with the Royals once upon a time. Squint your eyes and there’s some upside.
  • RHP Brandon Cumpton: Cumpton had a 4.02 ERA (3.14 FIP) in 100.2 innings for the Pirates from 2013-14, then he had Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons. He finally got healthy and returned to the mound this year. His pre-Tommy John stuff was good. I’d stick him in the bullpen and see what happens.
  • UTIL Cito Culver: Might as well bring back Cito, right? He’s been the utility guy at Triple-A Scranton for a few years now and he’s done the job well enough to keep getting re-signed, so I might as well re-sign him again.
  • LHP Paco Rodriguez: I’ve always like Rodriguez. He’s got a funky delivery and a good enough breaking ball to be a potential left-on-left matchup option. Rodriguez had Tommy John surgery in October 2015 and his stuff hasn’t returned all the way yet.
  • C Jackson Williams: Can’t hit a lick — he’s a career .220/.303/.319 (70 wRC+) hitter in over 3,000 minor league plate appearances — but he can defend. Williams is a veteran dude (age 31) who’s settled in as a Triple-A backup the last few years. That’s what you want. Someone who knows and accepts the role.

Don’t like the minor league contract guys? Well, too bad. Not sure what to tell you. For the most part these guys are filling thankless but necessary roles. Injuries and call-ups are inevitable, and someone has to step in and pick up the slack.

The Shohei Otani Situation

Bring to me. (Getty)
Bring to me. (Getty)

I suppose it’s about time we get to the biggest prize of the offseason, huh? I saved Otani for the end because the Yankees — or any other team, for that matter — can’t and shouldn’t plan their offseason around him. I explained all that the other day. He’s only going to make the league minimum next season, so we don’t need to earmark a big chunk of change under the luxury tax threshold for Otani.

So anyway, yes, I’m going full court press here as part of my offseason hypothetical. Give Otani every last international bonus dollar and make one hell of a sales pitch. Get Tanaka involved. Get Hideki Matsui involved. Get Reggie Jackson involved. Sell the Yankees for what they are: an up-and-coming powerhouse in a great city loaded with young talent, and a team with a history of paying their best players top of the market dollars. The short version:

“We just got to within one game of the World Series. Our rookie right fielder hit 52 homers. Our 24-year-old catcher missed a month and still hit 33 homers. We have a 23-year-old righty who’s going to finish third in the Cy Young voting. We have the No. 1 prospect in baseball, per MLB.com. We’ll let you hit and pitch. Have you seen the short porch? Imagine what it’ll do for you power numbers. No team in baseball can offer you the chance to pitch and DH with the kind of young core, plus we pay well.”

Sound good? Now, because the financial playing field is relatively level, we can’t just assume the Yankees will sign Otani as part of this little exercise. I mean, we could, but we have to be somewhat realistic. Otani will make his decision based on his personal preferences and we have no idea what they are. Maybe he wants to go to a veteran team. Maybe hitting isn’t that big a deal for him. Maybe he wants to go to the West Coast. Who knows.

Anyway, since we are pursuing Otani aggressively, we have to come with an answer here. Does he sign with the Yankees, yes or no? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.

shohei-otani-magic-8-ball

WELP. So much for that. Too bad, Otani would’ve slotted nicely into the open bench spot. We tried. Gave it our best effort. Offered as much money as possible and made the best sales pitch we could. Ultimately, Otani decided to go to [other team] and that’s baseball. He was free to make his own decision. It’ll be fun beating him on the field.

Final Product

Okay, so after going through all that, I have the luxury tax payroll at approximately $189.3M going into 2018. Here’s my payroll spreadsheet. There’s some wiggle room there with the pre-arbitration salaries, but generally speaking, we are left with $7.7M for in-season additions. Is that enough? I dunno. Every time you call someone up, it adds to the payroll. Just say, for example, Kahnle pulls a Mitchell and breaks his foot covering first base in Spring Training. Now you have Kahnle and the call-up who replaced him counting against the luxury tax payroll. Hopefully $7.7M is enough. Here’s the 25-man roster I ended up with.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Gary Sanchez 1B Greg Bird LF Brett Gardner Luis Severino Aroldis Chapman
Rene Rivera 2B Starlin Castro CF Christian Yelich Masahiro Tanaka David Robertson
SS Didi Gregorius RF Aaron Judge Sonny Gray Chad Green
3B Chase Headley OF Aaron Hicks CC Sabathia Dellin Betances
IF Ronald Torreyes UTIL Breyvic Valera Jordan Montgomery Tommy Kahnle
1B Tyler Austin Adam Warren
Yusmeiro Petit

On the 40-man and in the minors (15): RHP Albert Abreu, 3B Miguel Andujar, OF Jake Cave, RHP Luis Cessa, IF Thairo Estrada, RHP Gio Gallegos, RHP Domingo German, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Ronald Herrera, C Kyle Higashioka, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Nick Rumbelow, LHP Caleb Smith, IF Gleyber Torres, UTIL Tyler Wade

My 2018 Yankees look an awful lot like the 2017 Yankees, huh? Swapping out Ellsbury for Yelich is the major change. The rest is just rearranging furniture. Keep in mind the Yankees will have Gray, Kahnle, and Robertson for a full season in 2018. That will hopefully lead to several wins worth of improvement. A few thoughts on the roster I wound up with.

1. For all intents and purposes, the Austin and Valera bench spots are shuttle spots. It would’ve been awfully nice to have Otani in one those spots, but alas. He signed with [other team]. And again, I really don’t love any of the projected low cost free agent bats. Adam Lind? Mark Reynolds? Austin Jackson? Meh. I’m going to say in house and show some faith in the kids. Those two shuttle spots give the Yankees some flexibility. If the Red Sox are coming to town with Chris Sale, David Price, and Drew Pomeranz scheduled to pitch the three games, Austin’s righty bat would come in handy. If you’re going to an NL park, someone like McKinney could come up to serve as a lefty bat off the bench. Or the Yankees could use one of those spots to carry an eighth reliever on occasion, or if they want to bring up a spot sixth starter to give the regular starters an extra day of rest. The Yankees don’t have to be locked into Austin and Valera for the 24th and 25th roster spots. That’s just who I’d put there to start the season. Those spots can be used to tailor the roster as necessary throughout the season. Sooner or later the best players will step up and seize those spots.

2. Gosh, I love the lineup possibilities. We talk a lot about versatility, and usually when we talk about versatility, we talk about positional versatility. Guys who can play multiple positions. There’s also something to be said for lineup versatility too. Yelich can hit leadoff or cleanup. Hicks has the profile to hit basically anywhere. Gregorius fits well in the middle of the order or at the bottom. Here’s how I’d line ’em up:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. CF Christian Yelich
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. DH Aaron Hicks (the plan is a DH rotation, not Hicks at DH full-time)
  9. 3B Chase Headley

Hitting Bird third and Yelich fifth works too. So does hitting Yelich second and Judge third. Or Yelich leadoff, Hicks second, Gregorius third, Judge fourth, Sanchez fifth, and Gardner ninth. The new manager, whoever it ends up being, will have a lot of flexibility with that group of players. Some hitters only fit into certain lineup spots because of their skills. This roster has a lot of well-rounded players who don’t look out of place anywhere.

3. No lefty reliever is no problem as far as I’m concerned. Robertson, Green, and Warren can all get out lefties. So can Betances when he’s right. In a close game with a big lefty bat at the plate, I want one of those high-end late-game righties on the mound, not some random southpaw just because he happens to throw with his left hand. I have Smith and Rodriguez stashed in Triple-A, plus Bellow and Zamora (and James Reeves) as additional lefty depth, just in case the Yankees determine at some point it’s imperative to have a lefty reliever. I don’t think it’s necessary. Take the best and most talented arms. Don’t worry about handedness.

4. I like the pitching depth more than I thought I would. I let go of a lot of pitching during the offseason. Adams, Acevedo, Holder, Mitchell, and Shreve are all gone. And yet, even after all of that, we still have Cessa, Gallegos, German, Herrera, Rumbelow, and Smith as immediate 40-man roster call-up candidates. We did lose a potential impact call-up candidate in Adams, though a) that’s what it takes to get a guy like Yelich, and b) I’m not sold on his ability to come up and be an immediate impact guy anyway. I wouldn’t push Sheffield aggressively — he’s such a good pitching prospect, just let him develop at his own pace rather than try to rush things — though he could debut at some point in the second half. Point is, even after all my hypothetical offseason moves, the Yankees would still have enough arms stashed in Triple-A that they could shuttle guys in and out as necessary, and also use spot sixth starters on occasion if they’re worried about workloads.

5. So what did this offseason plan accomplish, exactly? The goal every offseason is to get better, and I think I did that considerably by going from Ellsbury and Romine to Yelich and Rivera. Otherwise we replaced Todd Frazier and Matt Holliday with Austin and Valera, and, uh, that doesn’t sound great. The 2018 rotation is exactly the same as the end of 2017 rotation, so any improvement will have to come from a full season of Gray and less awfulness from Tanaka. I expect Petit to have an understated impact as well. His ability to go two or three innings at a time allows our new manager to take it easy on the starters, and also save the high-leverage guys for the next day.

Trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold — remember, the Yankees can’t spend right up to the $197M threshold this winter, they must leave space for in-season additions — was a real challenge, especially since I have no idea what would be an appropriate amount to leave for midseason additions. I left $7.7M. Would $5M have worked? Or $2M? Maybe we really need $15M? I don’t know. For this luxury tax plan to work — and by work I mean get under the threshold and remain competitive — the Yankees will need their cheap young players to produce, and I’m not just talking about Judge, Sanchez, and Severino. The secondary pieces like Montgomery, Heller, German, and even Torres will have to help as well. In a way, they’re the key to this whole plan.