Six-man rotation is a conversation worth having for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the final day of the offseason. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to officially report to Spring Training tomorrow, though more than a few Yankees are already in Tampa working out at the team’s complex. Tomorrow it’ll be official though. Like officially official. Spring Training is about to begin, folks.

Down in Tampa yesterday, pitching coaching Larry Rothschild told Bryan Hoch the Yankees plan to discuss using six starters early in the season, in April and possibly May. They briefly used a six-man rotation at the end of last season — obviously it’s easier to pull off with expanded rosters — and as early as last August we heard it was something the team was considering for 2015.

“It’s a result of some of the stuff that’s gone on over the last few years, not just here, but everywhere,” said Rothschild to Hoch. “We’re aware of situations here and early in the season, we need to get these guys through these stretches. Being that possibly early in the spring, some of them aren’t going to be able to throw a lot, we’re going to need to build them up too and give them the extra days when we can.”

A six-man rotation seems ambitious — the Yankees might have a hard time cobbling together five starters by the end of Spring Training based on the injury risk in the current rotation — though there’s no harm in discussing it. It might be unconventional, but baseball has been trending towards using pitchers less and less over the last, I dunno, 30-40 years or so. This is the logical next step. Let’s look at this a little deeper.

What Are The Benefits?

In the most basic terms, the less a pitcher pitches, the less likely he is to get hurt. The Yankees have two major injury risks in the rotation in Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) and CC Sabathia (knee), and pitching every sixth day instead of every fifth could help keep them on the field. I’m certain that’s what the Yankees are thinking. They want these guys to get through the entire season in one piece.

Pitchers in Japan work just about once a week and, according to Eno Sarris, they’ve undergone Tommy John surgery less than half as often as their MLB counterparts. Eno also spoke to Brian Bannister, a former big leaguer who spent time in Japan, and he said the extra time off does help while also noting NPB training methods are much different. “The recovery process in Japan is very deliberate with massage and soaking in alternating hot/cold water common,” he said. This isn’t as simple as “six-man rotation = less elbow injuries because look at NPB.” The preparation is different too.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Okay, now here is the important part: reducing the risk of injury is not guaranteed. Tanaka’s elbow has already been compromised and it could be that there’s nothing that can be done to improve his chances of staying on the field. The doctors have already given him the okay to pitch in games. If his elbow’s going to give, it’s probably going to give regardless of whether he’s starting every fifth day or every sixth day. Same with Sabathia’s knee. The Yankees could go through all the trouble of using a six-man rotation and these guys could still get hurt again.

Using a six-man rotation will ostensibly help the Yankees keep their starters healthy, and that’s a good thing. Their starters are actually pretty good when they’re healthy and they want those guys to make as many starts as possible. At this point a six-man rotation would be reactive instead of proactive — Tanaka and Sabathia (and Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova) have already suffered their major injuries. They’d just be trying to stop them from getting worse.

What About The Rest Of The Roster?

A six-man rotation means either a three-man bench or a six-man bullpen. The extra roster spot has to come from somewhere. If the Yankees go with a three-man bench, it means one of Chris Young, Garrett Jones, or Brendan Ryan won’t make the roster because one spot needs to go to a backup catcher, and I find cutting one of those guys unlikely. They all make seven figures. Maybe someone gets hurt in camp — Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, for example — opening a spot and making a three-man bench doable.

More than likely though, the Yankees would use a six-man bullpen based on their current roster. Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers — one of whom could end up the sixth starter — are both capable of throwing multiple innings, as is Dellin Betances. Justin Wilson isn’t a lefty specialist, he can throw a full inning. (A LOOGY has no place in a six-man bullpen.) The Yankees have the personnel to swing a six-man bullpen, especially since Joe Girardi is so meticulous about rest and keeping his relievers fresh. Plus they have the bullpen depth in the minors to make call-ups when necessary.

A Chance To Get Creative

That last part about call-ups is where it gets interesting. The sixth starter doesn’t have to be one starter, it could be a collection of starters. For example, Bryan Mitchell could make the start, then be sent down to Triple-A for an extra reliever, say Chris Martin. Then, when that rotation spot comes up again, Martin goes down and Chase Whitley comes up. (Mitchell couldn’t come up because of the ten-day rule.) Then after Whitley’s start, he goes back down in favor of a reliever, say Jacob Lindgren this time. When the rotation spot comes up again, Lindgren goes down and Mitchell comes up. Rinse, repeat. Make sense?

If the Yankees want to keep both Warren and Rogers in the bullpen so they can be used for multiple innings — a good idea with a six-man bullpen — Mitchell and Whitley could work in tandem as the sixth starter, pitching on the same schedule and alternating starts in MLB and Triple-A. Jose DePaula could be part of this arrangement too. He’s got an option left. It sounds great in theory because it allows the Yankees to keep a full seven-man bullpen most of the time with the sixth starter only on the roster the days he’s needed. These are people though, remember. Imagine being Mitchell or Whitley and having to do all that traveling from Triple-A to MLB for a day or two every other week. It would really suck and could impact performance.

How’s The Schedule Look?

Usually the month of April is cluttered with off-days because of weather concerns, enough that teams can often avoid using their fifth starter for a rotation turn or two. Off-days allowed the Yankees to avoid using their fifth starter (Freddy Garcia) until the 13th game of the season in 2011, after three full turns through the rotation. The Yankees won’t have that luxury this year. Here’s the April schedule from the official site:

April 2015 Schedule-001

The regular season starts on April 6th, the Yankees have the token “in case it rains on Opening Day off-day” on the 7th, then they play eight games in eight days. So right off the bat they need their fifth and potentially sixth starter. Following the off-day on the 16th, they play 13 games in 13 games, so again, there’s no chance to hide the fifth and sixth starter. After that off-day on the 30th, they play 17 games in 17 days.

Point is, there is no chance to skip the fifth and/or sixth starter early this season, and that might be part of the reason why the Yankees are considering a six-man rotation. The scheduled off-days don’t really allow for much extra rest early in the season and they want to make sure Tanaka, Sabathia, and everyone else gets a little breather in April. A six-man rotation is the only way to do it.

Okay, So What’s The Downside?

A six-man rotation does sound wonderful. As I mentioned though, it messes with the rest of the roster by taking a spot from the bench or bullpen. It also means fewer starts from your top starters. Starters average 32.4 starts in a five-man rotation and only 27 starts in a six-man rotation across a 162-game system. For the Yankees, that means five or so fewer starts each from Tanaka and Pineda, their best pitchers. Of course, without a six-man rotation, those two could end up making way fewer starts due to injury.

The idea of using a six-man rotation is more complicated than it seems. First of all, the Yankees would have to find six starters worthy of being in a big league rotation, which isn’t all that easy. It also screws with the rest of the roster and any health benefits aren’t guaranteed. It is a conversation worth having though. The Yankees have undoubtedly done more research on six-man rotations that us, and if they have reason to believe it will reap real benefits, then it’s a plan worth putting into place.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Chance are you’ve seen it already, but, if not, ESPN published a really great article on Alex Rodriguez by J.R. Moehringer. It’s brilliantly written and looks at A-Rod‘s time away from baseball last year, humanizing him more than anything. The guy’s been banking $20M+ a year for a decade and a half now and he still shops at Target with his kids for school supplies. There’s no real information in there about his performance-enhancing drug usage, if you’re looking for that sort of thing. It’s just a really great story. Check it out.

Here is your open thread for the evening. The NBA is somehow still in the middle of the All-Star break, and none of the three local hockey clubs are in action. It’s college hoops or bust tonight. Use this thread to talk about whatever you like.

Yankees land seven players on FanGraphs’ top 200 prospects list

Bird. (Presswire)
Bird. (Presswire)

Over at FanGraphs yesterday, Kiley McDaniel posted his list of the top 200 — not the top 100, the top 200 (!) — prospects in baseball heading into the 2015 season. Cubs 3B Kris Bryant claims the top spot and is followed by Twins OF Byron Buxton and Cubs SS Addison Russell in the top three. At this point, it’s clear Bryant is the consensus top prospect in baseball with Buxton, last year’s No. 1, right behind him.

The Yankees landed seven players in the top 200. Here’s the list with a short quote from McDaniel’s write-up:

  • RHP Luis Severino (No. 26): “He’s quickly improved and developed starter traits, but on certain days the stuff, command and delivery may all look more like a reliever.”
  • OF Aaron Judge (No. 58): “He’ll be 23 in Double-A next year and that will give us a better idea of if he’s a solid everyday guy or a potential star, but there’s clearly more here than people were expecting.”
  • LHP Jacob Lindgren (No. 100): “(He’s) now knocking on the door of the big leagues with closer level stuff and just enough of the feel from his starter days to spot his hellacious slider where he wants it.”
  • SS Jorge Mateo (No. 102): “(He) has top-of-the-scale 80 speed, has the tools to stick at shortstop, has surprising pop and was hanging with pitches three or four years older than him.”
  • 1B Greg Bird (No. 120): “Bird has plus power and good plate discipline, with some comparing him to a non-injury-prone Nick Johnson.”
  • LHP Ian Clarkin (No. 137): “His velocity has settled near the high end of where it was pre-draft and his above average to plus curveball is still the separator, with his changeup and command making good progress.”

2B Rob Refsnyder is the seventh prospect, but the bottom 58 players of the top 200 are not ranked and are instead listed as honorable mentions, basically. It’s kinda interesting McDaniel ranked Bird as the team’s third best prospect behind Severino and Lindgren last month, but now he’s fifth behind Severino, Judge, Lindgren, and Mateo. Eh, whatever.

I’m biased, so what the hell do I know, but I find it very hard to believe there are 200 prospects in the minors right now better than C Gary Sanchez. I get people are down on him, but a catcher with his arm and that much offensive upside is a pretty valuable prospect. Especially when they’ve had success at Double-A before their 22nd birthday. Not top 100? Okay. But not top 200? C’mon now.

Tanaka arrives in Tampa, long-tosses for 34 minutes

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Pitchers and catchers aren’t scheduled to report for Spring Training until Friday, but several players are already in Tampa working out at the Yankees’ minor league complex. One of those players is Masahiro Tanaka, who arrived in town earlier this week and worked out at the complex for the first time yesterday.

According to the Associated Press, Tanaka played catch for 34 minutes yesterday, making throws as far as 200 feet. He wrapped up his throwing session with 16 throws from flat ground using his normal delivery. Tanaka, as you know, missed about three months with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last year. He had no issues with the elbow during offseason workouts and apparently everything went fine yesterday.

“So far everything is good,” said pitching Larry Rothschild to the Associated Press earlier this week when asked about Tanaka’s offseason work. “That doesn’t mean it will be going forward, but we’re going to do everything we can. We’ll put schedules together and things like that to try to keep him healthy.”

Tanaka did not talk to reporters after throwing yesterday — “He looked like the same guy, smiling all the time. When I saw his throwing program, he looked good,” said Ivan Nova, who was also at the complex — but is scheduled to talk to the media on Friday. Needless to say, his elbow is going to be a focal point this spring. Tanaka might be the biggest x-factor for the team’s success in 2015 and every day he goes without an issue is a good day.

Time to discuss the potential on-field impact of A-Rod’s return

Oh yeah, he plays baseball too. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Oh yeah, he plays baseball too. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The circus has arrived. Alex Rodriguez is set to rejoin the Yankees this season after serving his 162-game suspension last year, and he’s already made the rounds. He apologized to new commish Rob Manfred. He apologized to the Yankees. He apologized to everyone — including the fans! — in a handwritten statement. That was all necessary in my opinion and it’s done now. Good. Let’s move on.

For the purposes of this post, moving on means talking about actual baseball, not discussing how the Yankees can get out of A-Rod‘s contract or anything like that. Like it or not, Alex is back and the Yankees seem committed to seeing if he has anything left. Considering there are three years and over $60M left on his contract, they have to at least see what he can do, right? He was a pretty good player once upon a time, remember. Maybe the year away did his body good.

Let’s start by laying out some facts:

  • A-Rod is 39 and will turn 40 in late-July.
  • A-Rod has played zero MLB games in the last 16 months and only 44 games in the last 28 months.
  • A-Rod has had surgery on both hips as well as his right knee within the last six years.

That’s all pretty bad as far as on-field production goes. Old players usually don’t perform well. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries perform even worse. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries who haven’t played at all in a year and not that much in two years perform even worse than that. A-Rod hits the trifecta.

Since the turn of the century, there have been 104 instances of a position player age 39 or older appearing in at least 54 games (one-third of a season), and 78 of the 104 finished the year with 1.0 WAR or less. Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, and Edgar Martinez account for seven of the 26 1.0+ WAR seasons. Sixty-two of the 104 were at 0.5 WAR or less. Forty-two of the 104, or 40.4%, were replacement level or worse. That’s really bad.

Normally, this is where I’d point out A-Rod is much more like Bonds or Chipper or Edgar than he is, say, Omar Vizquel or Todd Pratt or Jeff Conine. Rodriguez was a friggin’ star, man. He put up huge numbers and is simply one of the best right-handed hitters ever. Great players age differently than everyone else, but Bonds, Chipper, and Edger were not coming back from any major lower body injuries nor had they missed close to two full seasons before their age 39 season.

Forget about WAR for guys in their age 39 season. This is more important: over the last 25 years, 50 players had fewer than 200 plate appearances during their age 37-38 seasons combined, including A-Rod. Of the 49 non-Alex players, only four managed to play even one game in their age 39 season: outfielder Trent Hubbard (ten games) and backup catchers Lance Parrish (70 games), Pat Borders (93 games through age 42), and Mike Difelice (seven games). That’s it. Players who are damn near out of the league at 37-38 usually don’t come back to play at age 39, nevermind 39-41, the ages covered by the remainder of Rodriguez’s contract. He’s trying to do something no has done in the last quarter-century.

Want to look at some projections? Fine. PECOTA pegs A-Rod as a .247/.324/.409 true talent hitter going into 2015 and holy crap that would be amazing. ZiPS has him at .229/.312/.399, which is basically 2014 Mark Teixeira (.216/.313/.398). Steamer has him at .233/.310/.372 and is the least optimistic. But the computers don’t know about A-Rod’s injury history and they don’t know how to account for all his time away from the game the last two years, so they basically ignore them. Projections are mostly useless in general and they’re even more useless for A-Rod.

This is all a roundabout way of saying we have no idea what to expect from Alex this coming season. His injures and time away complicate things way too much. Old players are tough to figure out because they could fall off a cliff at any moment. A-Rod’s an old guy with an injury history who hasn’t played a whole lot. The smart money is on him contributing very little — like, very very like — in 2015 and that’s why the Yankees flat out replaced him at third base (Chase Headley) and brought in protection for the DH spot (Garrett Jones). They’re expecting nothing and prepared for it.

No matter what, A-Rod is going to be a distraction in Spring Training and early in the regular season. (Actually, probably all season.) Cameras are going to be all over him, the media’s going to write all about him, and the broadcasters won’t shut up about him. That’s inevitable and it’ll all be much more tolerable if he contributes in some way on the field. Even league average production would be welcome. There’s no way to realistically expect that though. We know the off-the-field stuff will be ridiculous. The on-field stuff is a total mystery.

For better or worse, the Yankees stuck to their plan and accomplished their goals this offseason

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It all started last September. One day after the Yankees completed their second straight postseason-less season, Joe Girardi held his annual end of season press conference and said “at times we ran out four guys, five guys over 35 years old. I don’t think that will happen next year.” Three days later, Hal Steinbrenner said young players are “going play a big part” going forward during a radio interview.

Over the last few seasons, comments like that were lip service. The Yankees always seemed to talk about getting younger but never actually did it. And even when they tried, it blew up in their faces. Think Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy starting 2008 in the rotation, or Michael Pineda blowing out his shoulder almost immediately after being acquired in a blockbuster trade. Incorporating young players hasn’t been easy for New York.

This offseason though, the Yankees stuck to their guns and got younger. They got younger, added more depth to the roster, and increased flexibility, both roster-wise and financially. The accomplished that with trades and by not signing any free agents to a massive long-term contract. It would have been very easy to throw millions at a proven AL East horse like Jon Lester or a Cy Young winner like Max Scherzer, especially given the need in the rotation, but the team said no.

Instead, the Yankees replaced Derek Jeter with 25-year-old Didi Gregorius, not a veteran free agent like Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera. Hiroki Kuroda was replaced by 25-year-old Nathan Eovaldi. Francisco Cervelli was traded to create room for John Ryan Murphy. David Carpenter and Justin Wilson are younger than Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton. Stephen Drew was brought back to play second but he’ll have to look over his shoulder at Rob Refsnyder. Heck, in a way Alex Rodriguez was replaced by the younger Chase Headley at the hot corner.

The Yankees went younger at just about every position they feasibly could this offseason, with the only exception being second base, where Refsnyder looms. Their existing contract commitments meant they were stuck with incumbents in the outfield, at first base, and behind the plate. There was nothing they could realtistically do there. If there was, I’m sure the team would have gone younger somehow. That was the plan. Get younger wherever possible.

“We had numerous goals, but two of the goals were certainly to get younger and better defensively,” said Hal to David Lennon last month. “One of our goals was to get younger (and) I think we did that at a few positions,” Brian Cashman recently told Nick Cafardo. And, I think if you ask Cashman, he’d say he wanted to do this years ago but couldn’t for whatever reason, either because the farm system wasn’t good enough, the right players weren’t available, or because the mandate was to win at any cost.

Clearly, that all changed this offseason. The Yankees did not pay top dollar for free agents like they have so many times before — Headley and Andrew Miller both reportedly turned down more money to come to New York — even though I’m sure the temptation was great. The stated plan was to get younger even if we didn’t believe it at first, and get younger is what they did. Mission accomplished in that regard.

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

The question now is this: are the Yankees better? They executed their plan but a) did they execute it well, and b) was it even the right plan in the first place? I guess that’s three questions. I have no idea if the Yankees will be better this year than last but my feeling is they will be several wins better if the pitching holds up reasonably well. If Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia get hurt, what are you going to do, the Yankees are more or less doomed from the start in that case. If they can get, say, 80 starts out of Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, and Ivan Nova this year instead of the 45 they got last year (yes, 45), then yeah I think they’ll better.

More importantly, I think the Yankees are set to be in much better shape a year or two down the road then they were prior to this offseason. They added potential long-term solutions at shortstop and in the rotation with Eovaldi, and they didn’t lock themselves into another enormous deal for a player either in or about to enter his decline years. Scherzer or Lester obviously would have made the team better until they go the way of Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, and we’re counting down the days until their contracts expire. Are Gregorius and Eovaldi guaranteed to be those long-term solutions? Nope. But that’s the risk you take with young players.

As for the other two questions, yes I think the Yankees had the right plan and I do think they executed it well. We could sit around and nitpick all day — they should have found another way to get Gregorius and kept Shane Greene instead of trading for Eovaldi, blah blah blah — but what’s done is done and I think the Yankees fared well. They traded five players off the MLB roster (Greene, Cervelli, Kelley, Martin Prado, David Phelps) and the only one of those five with the ability to make us say “damn I really wish the Yankees had kept him” in two years is Greene. They surrendered those guys and both got younger and received potential impact pieces in return. That makes sense to me.

The Yankees changed course this offseason and it needed to be done. The whole “throw money at every problem” plan doesn’t work as well as it once did because free agency kinda stinks nowadays. All the best players are signing long-term extensions. Cashman & Co. retooled and got younger were they could. The prospect of tearing it all down and starting from scratch like the Astros or Cubs just wasn’t going to happen because it can’t happen. There are too many unmovable contracts on the roster. The Yankees got younger and I think they’re going to continue to look to get younger. They developed a plan and stuck to it. Now it just has to work.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, ex-Biogenesis chief Anthony Bosch was sentenced to four years in federal prison earlier today for various illegal drug crimes, including injecting high school athletes with steroids. Here’s the AP story. Unsurprisingly, Bosch’s cooperation with MLB during their investigation did not result in a more lenient sentence as he had hoped. So remember, when MLB went through all that trouble to clean up the game, they got into bed with a convicted felon. Not a good look.

This is the nightly open thread. The NBA is still in the middle of its All-Star break, but both the Devils and Islanders are playing, and there’s a bunch of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games, Jeter’s new radio show, A-Rod’s apology, or anything else right here.