Heyman: Yankees and Braves talked 10-player blockbuster with Heyward, Simmons, Severino last year

Simmons and Heyward. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Simmons and Heyward. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Last offseason we learned the Yankees and Braves discussed a blockbuster trade that would have brought Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons to New York for a package of prospects. We later found out Luis Severino would have been part of that trade, which makes sense. The Braves were focusing on young pitching in all their trades last winter and Severino was the best young pitcher the Yankees had to offer.

The trade didn’t go through, obviously. Heyward was traded to the Cardinals, Simmons spent another year in Atlanta before being traded to the Angels, and Severino remains a Yankee. Late last night, Jon Heyman reported some more details of the blockbuster proposal, and it was a five-for-five swap. Check out this deal:

To Yankees: Heyward, Simmons, B.J. Melvin Upton, Chris Johnson, David Carpenter
To Braves: Severino, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Ian Clarkin, Manny Banuelos

Holy moly, that is a lot of players and a lot of talent. And also some dead roster weight. Heyman says Heyward was told the Yankees were close to getting him “many times” last offseason, for what it’s worth. Keep in mind Heyward was traded to the Cardinals on November 17th, so the Yankees and Braves discussed this blockbuster very early in the offseason. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this.

1. Heyman says the Yankees were the team that declined to pull the trigger, indicating the Braves suggested the five-for-five swap. That makes sense. I have a hard time believing the Yankees would have been willing to put that much young talent on the table — unproven minor league young talent, but young talent nonetheless — and take back what amounted to one long-term piece in Simmons. Heyward was a year away from free agency, Upton and Johnson had albatross contracts, and Carpenter was only a reliever. A good reliever (with the Braves, at least) but still only a reliever. I guess the Yankees could have signed Heyward to an extension, though that doesn’t really change the evaluation of the trade. It’s not like the Braves are giving you the extension. The trade and extension are separate transactions. Based on my 2015 Preseason Top 30 Prospects List, that trade would have sent New York’s four (!) best prospects to the Braves. Sheesh. Too much. Glad they didn’t pull the trigger.

2. I found it pretty interesting Simmons was traded this offseason to the Angels, who are now run by former Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler. I wonder if Eppler was the driving force behind the Yankees’ interest in Simmons. At the very least we know he was on board with trying to acquire Andrelton. That’s understandable. Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in the world and one of the best in history. That said, I am perfectly happy with Didi Gregorius, aren’t you?

Andrelton Simmons Didi Gregorius

Simmons is very good. I would so much rather have Gregorius at the price it took to acquire him than Simmons at the price it would have taken to acquire him, and that was true last offseason. And that’s coming from someone who expected Shane Greene to have a really good year last season. I didn’t foresee him struggling that much at all. Simmons is a very good shortstop with big name value. Didi’s production is comparable, he came at a much lower cost, and he’s cheaper. In the past the Yankees went for the big name, not the smart pickup. Who is this team and what have they done with the Yankees?

3. The Heyward angle is interesting because the Yankees had a full outfield. They had Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran last offseason. What they didn’t have was an idea what they’d get from Alex Rodriguez coming off his suspension. I guess the plan was to put Heyward in right field, move Beltran to DH, and then figure things out with A-Rod later. The Yankees approached last offseason as if Rodriguez was going to be a non-factor. They re-signed Chase Headley to play third base and one of the reasons they acquired Garrett Jones was to ensure they had a backup plan at DH. (Also, Beltran was coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, so he was a question too.) They never needed that backup plan. Rod mashed from Day One. Making the four-man outfield work would have been tricky, but remember, Gardner missed a few games in April after taking a pitch to the wrist, and Ellsbury missed seven weeks after hurting his knee in May. These things have a way of working themselves out.

4. This trade was talked about very early in the offseason, so had it gone through, the Yankees probably would not have re-signed Chris Young and instead let Upton fill that role. What else would they do with him? Bossman Jr. was a total disaster in his two years with the Braves — he hit .198/.279/.314 (66 wRC+) in just over 1,000 plate appearances from 2013-14 — but he did actually have a nice year with the Padres in 2015, putting up a .259/.327/.429 (110 wRC+) batting line with five homers and nine steals in 228 plate appearances around a foot injury. That includes a .254/.369/.423 (124 wRC+) line against southpaws. Nice numbers, but as with Gregorius over Simmons, give me the guy the Yankees actually acquired (Young) over the guy they could have acquired (Upton), especially considering the acquisition cost.

Upton. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Upton. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

5. The Braves would have had to kick in money to make this trade work, right? I can’t imagine they realistically expected the Yankees to give up all that young talent and take on all that salary. Not counting the arbitration-eligible Carpenter, the four guys who would have come to New York in the trade were owed a combined $133.15M across 13 contract seasons. I know a $10.24M average annual value doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not actually spread out across 13 seasons. Most of those seasons overlap. Heyward’s very good and so is Simmons, but how could the Braves not kick in money to facilitate this trade? Substantial money too. They’d have to pay down something like $30M or even $40M of that $113.15M. Giving up all that talent and taking on all that money makes no sense for the Yankees, not when only one of the five players they were set to receive was a significant long-term asset (Simmons).

6. I think both the Yankees and Braves are better off now than they would have been had the trade gone through. The Yankees kept Severino, kept their other prospects, and acquired Gregorius to take over at short. The Braves turned Heyward into Shelby Miller, then Miller into three really good young players (Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, Aaron Blair). Simmons fetched a top 20 pitching prospect (Sean Newcomb), another very good pitching prospect (Chris Ellis), and a tradeable veteran (Erick Aybar). Upton’s contract was dumped on the Padres in the Craig Kimbrel trade with actual prospects going back to Atlanta, and Johnson was sent to the Indians for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in a trade that rearranged money to make things more favorable for both teams. (The Indians got a lower average annual value and the Braves now have the money coming off the books a year earlier than they would have.) And then Banuelos and Carpenter ended up being traded for each other anyway. I’m sure both the Yankees and Braves were disappointed they weren’t able to work out a trade last year. From the looks of it, both teams are better off with the way things worked out.

7. I’m (very) glad the Yankees walked way from this trade — I don’t mean that in a prospect hugging way, it’s just a lot of talent to give up for two impact players, one of whom was a year away from free agency — and I’m also glad to see they’re at least willing to discuss their top prospects in trades. Too many teams out there seem completely unwilling to even consider making their best prospects available. Young talent is important! It’s also fairly unpredictable and risky. I really like Judge and think he has a chance to be a +4 WAR outfielder down the road, but at the same time, I also recognize he might never get there because he’s so damn big and strikeouts will always be an issue. Banuelos hasn’t been the same since Tommy John surgery. Clarkin got hurt a few weeks after the blockbuster was discussed. I’m glad the Yankees are emphasizing young talent now. That’s what they need to do at this point. They’d also be smart to not make all their top prospects off-limits. There’s always a point where dealing a highly touted young player makes sense, and teams owe it to themselves to explore those opportunities. They’re often fleeting.

Luis Severino’s Next Step Toward the Front of the Rotation [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Heading into the trade deadline last season, it was pretty clear the Yankees needed some rotation help. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova were struggling, Michael Pineda had just come down with a forearm issue, and Adam Warren was not stretched out after moving to the bullpen. Masahiro Tanaka and Nathan Eovaldi carried the load there for a while, and they needed help.

The Yankees tried to trade for a starter. They were connected to all sorts of pitchers prior to the deadline. Rentals, long-term buys, you name it. Nothing came at a price they liked. So, rather than trade for a starter — ten (!) starting pitchers were traded in the days leading up to the deadline: David Price, J.A. Happ, Mat Latos, Alex Wood, Mike Fiers, Mike Leake, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, Dan Haren — the Yankees dipped into their farm system and called up top pitching prospect Luis Severino.

Severino, who turned only 22 last month, came up and made eleven mostly spectacular starts, giving the Yankees 62.1 innings of 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) ball. Outside of Price and possibly Hamels, none of those traded starters could have given the Yankees as much impact as Severino. He was excellent, so much so that it was fair to ask whether he deserved to start the wildcard game. (Ultimately it didn’t matter who started because the offense did nothing.)

Coming into the 2016 season, Severino is not just the exciting young pitcher who represents the future of the rotation. He’s an important member of the team. The Yankees will need Severino to pitch well this summer in order to return to the postseason, and while that can be a lot to ask of a young starter, those were the exact circumstances he faced last year. Severino’s goals for the season are help the team win and continue to take steps towards the front of the rotation. I have two questions for 2016.

How Can He Improve?

Severino was really good in his limited look last season but there is definitely room for improvement. There always is. I already wrote about his need to get his slider down in the zone, and that’s a big one to me. Severino has really good stuff — he used three pitches (fastball, slider, changeup) regularly last year — and now he just needs to work on his location a bit. That’s not at all uncommon for pitchers his age.

The long ball was a bit of a problem last summer as well, and while Yankee Stadium is to blame for some of that, Severino shoulders some of responsibility too. Five of the nine homers he allowed came in two-strike counts, when hitters are supposed to be on the defensive, not squaring up hittable pitches. This goes back to Severino’s need to locate better down in the zone. Once he does that, some more balls should stay in the park.

Left-handed hitters also gave Severino some trouble, though you wouldn’t know it looking at the raw numbers. Righties had a .303 wOBA against him and lefties had a .314 wOBA. The difference is in the strikeout and walk rates. Severino had a 27.6% strikeout rate and a 6.9% walk rate against righties, and that’s awesome. Against lefties it was only a 17.3% strikeout rate and a 10.1% walk rate. That’s not so good. I’m not too worried about the strikeout rate, but I would like to see Severino cut down on the free passes against batters of the opposite hand.

We’re nitpicking at this point, which is a good sign. That means Severino has no obvious, glaring flaws that need correcting. His stuff is firm, he misses bats, and he gets ground balls (50.9%). He just needs to fine tune some things, like his slider location, his walk rate against lefties, and keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate in two-strike counts. These are normal things a 22-year-old must work on. Now he has to actually do it. Making adjustments is easier said than done.

How Many Innings Will He Throw?

The Yankees say Severino has no restrictions this year and there’s no reason to believe them. Severino is the crown jewel of their quasi-rebuild and they’re not going to put their just turned 22-year-old stud pitcher in danger by overworking him. “I’m not going to put a number out there. It can take on a life on it’s own,” said Brian Cashman last month, which more or less confirms there is some number they’re targeting.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Keeping Severino’s workload target a secret is the best possible thing the Yankees can do. Workload limits can become a distraction in a hurry. We saw the Joba Rules in 2007. They were unavoidable. There was also the Stephen Strasburg shutdown — people are still talking about that — and even last fall Matt Harvey’s innings were talked about non-stop. The Yankees have a number. There’s no reason to put it out there.

Last season Severino threw a career high 161.2 innings, up from 113 innings in 2015, so we’re talking about a 48.2 innings jump from year to year. The Verducci Effect, the theory that an increase of 30+ innings is dangerous, has been disproven many times over the years, but I can’t imagine too many teams are willing to push a young pitcher 50+ more innings one year to the next. Severino’s innings increase last year is the upper bound of what seems comfortable, if that makes sense.

Those 161.2 innings last year put Severino in position to throw something like 185-190 innings this year. Only seven pitchers have thrown 200+ innings in their age 22 season this century: Mark Buehrle, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, and Madison Bumgarner. Prior got hurt the very next year and was never the same again. The other six proved to be workhorses who chucked 200+ innings year after year.

That means nothing as far as Severino is concerned. It doesn’t mean he has a six in seven chance of becoming a horse. Every pitcher is different. I listed those seven pitchers just to show how rare it is for a pitcher this young to throw that many innings. Severino’s in position to throw 200+ innings in 2016. My guess is he falls short by design. The Yankees like to give their other starters extra rest whenever possible and there’s no reason to think Severino is different. He might even get more rest than everyone else. He’s simply too valuable to the franchise.

* * *

The Yankees need Severino to pitch well and pitch often this season to help get them back to the postseason. At the same time, he is still a 22-year-old kid and his development is far from complete. He has things to learn and he has to physically build himself up to withstand the grind of a 34-start season. There will be growing pains along the way because there are always growing pains. The Yankees and Severino hope those growing pains are just a bump in the road on the way stardom in 2016.

If backup catcher race is between Sanchez and Romine, the choice is obvious for the Yankees

(Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Over the years the Yankees have been known to stage Spring Training competitions. Competition is healthy and they try to foster it in camp whenever possible, even if it means saying a job is up for grabs when we all know it really isn’t. The fifth starter competition in 2010 always stands out to me. If it was truly based on spring performance, Sergio Mitre would have gotten the job. Instead, it went to Phil Hughes, who was going to get it all along.

This spring the Yankees do have some true competitions, mostly in the bullpen but also on the bench. That last bench spot is up for grabs and it sounds like it will go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees must also pick a backup catcher from a group that includes top prospect Gary Sanchez, post-hype youngster Austin Romine, and veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan. From the sound of it, the race is between Sanchez and Romine.

“In evaluating Sanchez and Romine you want to give them equal starts and see how they do and how they adapt to the different pitchers … They re going to play,” said Joe Girardi to George King over the weekend. Player usage can be telling during Spring Training, and it’s worth noting Sanchez started Sunday’s game behind the plate with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound. Romine came off the bench to catch the Triple-A guys.

“I think it has shown how much he has grown, that he is getting starts now as opposed to coming in and backing up and (catching) guys he knew from the minor leagues. Now he is getting guys he doesn’t know and you want to see how he adjusts,” said Girardi. Sanchez started and caught Ivan Nova last week, another big league pitcher he’s not too familiar with. Romine’s only start this spring came with Bryan Mitchell on the mound, and those two know each other from Triple-A last season.

Romine is out-hitting Sanchez very early in Grapefruit League play — he’s 4-for-8 with three booming doubles, Sanchez is 0-for-3 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch — and while that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to hurt Romine’s case. He said it himself the other day. To make the Opening Day roster, he’s going to have to hit all spring. Another .171/.216/.200 showing like last spring won’t cut it. Romine has to force the issue.

The Yankees have been going young whenever possible over the last 16 months or so, and handing the backup catcher reins over the Sanchez is an obvious move. He’s their top catcher prospect, he had success at Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he put an exclamation point on his season in the Arizona Fall League. Sanchez has reportedly matured over the last year and his defense improving. Giving him the job makes sense. At the same time, more time in Triple-A is justifiable.

“I think you have to see where his game is as we go through Spring Training,” said Girardi. “Sometimes you talk about players who have high ceilings and sometimes people say, ‘Let’s finish (his development) off in the minor leagues before we call them up.’ I think Gary does have a high ceiling but he is a guy who might be able to help us a lot, too. If you think he is ready then you have to weigh that. Is he better off playing every day and really finish everything off? Or do you see if he can help you out and make a difference.”

(Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Beyond the on-field development — Sanchez is improving defensively but he’s still not great back there — there’s also roster and service time considerations. Thirty-five days in the minors pushes Sanchez’s free agency back a year. Romine, meanwhile, is out of options and has been outrighted before, which means if the Yankees want to send him to the minors, they have to pass him through waivers. And even if he clears waivers, he can elect free agency thanks to the prior outright.

If the backup catcher competition is truly between Sanchez and Romine — Corporan is a bystander who was brought in as depth, in that case — then the decision seems pretty obvious to me. The Yankees should go with Romine and keep him around a little longer. (I assume he’d elect free agency if outrighted to find a better opportunity.) That allows them to maintain some catcher depth and, more importantly, push Sanchez’s free agency back. That almost feels like the top consideration here, not his on-field development.

Sanchez and Romine are not oblivious to the situation. Sanchez reached the big leagues as a September call-up last year and said over the winter his goal is to make the team for good this year. Romine is basically fighting for his career. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. This might be his last chance at a big league roster spot. If this doesn’t work out, he’s in danger of becoming a journeyman teams pick up to fill Triple-A roster holes. That’s one hell of a motivator, don’t you think?

“It doesn’t feel different,” said Sanchez to Bryan Hoch when asked about the general belief he is the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. “To me, I’m just focusing on my job. I’ve got to keep working hard every day, call a good game and whatever decision is up to them. It’s exciting to be in the mix. For us, all players, we want to make it to the big leagues. But that’s not my decision.”

Whoever the Yankees pick to be their backup catcher, that player doesn’t figure to actually play much early in the season. Brian McCann is going to start most games, and all the April off-days mean it’ll be easier to keep him in the lineup. That’s another reason to send Sanchez down. He won’t actually start much in April. Going with Romine as the backup catcher is not so much about having Romine on the roster. It’s about trading a handful of games now for an extra season of Sanchez later, and that’s an easy call.

Open Thread: March 7th Camp Notes

Landis Sims. (Photo via @YankeesPR)
Landis Sims. (Photo via @YankeesPR)

The Yankees lost again this afternoon to fall to 2-4 in Grapefruit League play. The Astros shut them out 1-0. Doomed. Doomed I say. Anyway, Michael Pineda allowed two hits in two scoreless innings in his spring debut, striking out three. Luis Severino bounced back nicely from his ugly outing last week, allowing two hits and striking out three in three scoreless innings. Jacob Lindgren also bounced back from his walk-filled spring debut by retiring all three men he faced.

Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances both made their spring debuts this afternoon. Miller allowed a hit and a walk in a scoreless inning, and Betances allowed the game’s only run on two hits in his inning of work. Brian McCann had two hits while Carlos Beltran had one, a double. Chris Denorfia went 0-for-1 with a strikeout in his spring debut after signing a minor league deal last week. Here’s the box score, here are the day’s photos, and there are the day’s notes from camp:

  • As usual, Chad Jennings has the day’s workout groups. Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Goody were among those to throw bullpen sessions and all the position players who didn’t play in the game instead took batting practice. Not much to see today.
  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) felt fine following yesterday’s start and will start Friday’s game. Brett Gardner (wrist) and Pete Kozma (back) both took batting practice on the field for the first time today. Starlin Castro will not play the next two days because he’s having some dental work done. [Jennings, Brendan Kuty, Ryan Hatch]
  • The Yankees play their next two games on other side of Florida, so a bunch of players will make the trip and stay overnight instead of making the four-hour bus ride back and forth each day. Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, CC Sabathia, and James Kaprielian are among those making the trip. Tomorrow’s game will not be televised. [Jennings]
  • The Yankees had a ten-year-old boy named Landis Sims in camp today. Landis was born without legs and hands, but thanks to prosthetic devices, he was able to take batting practice with the team today. Good stuff, Yankees. Here’s the story.
  • And finally, make sure you check out Sabathia’s post on the Players’ Tribune. He opened up about his battle with alcoholism and his road to recovery. Powerful stuff.

This is tonight’s open thread. MLB Network is playing the Phillies and Pirates on tape delay later tonight, which is good because none of the local hockey or basketball teams are playing tonight. No college basketball either. What gives? Anyway, talk about whatever here.

Carlos Beltran wants to play “two more years if possible”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Carlos Beltran has reached the point of his career where the retirement question is inevitable. He’s going to turn 39 in April, and while he’s still quite productive, his game has clearly slipped in recent years. Beltran will be a free agent after the season, and given how teams are avoiding players approaching 40, the potential for a forced retirement exists. Teams simply may not want to sign him even if he has a strong 2016 season.

Last week, Beltran told Wally Matthews his goal is to play 20 years in the big leagues, which means 2016 plus two more seasons after that. Beltran appeared in 14 games with the 1998 Royals before jumping into their lineup full-time in 1999. He hit .293/.337/.454 (95 wRC+) with 22 homers, 27 steals, 4.7 bWAR, and 4.3 fWAR that season to earn AL Rookie of the Year honors.

“My goal is to play 20 years. I would love to play 20 years in the big leagues. So that means two more years if possible,” said Beltran to Matthews. “I have a responsibility for this year. For me, all my thoughts are trying to put myself into condition to try to help this team win. At the end of the year, based on how things happen, then, you know, I will make a decision. But right now, physically I feel fine. If I can stay healthy and still contribute at this level, why should I go home?”

Beltran has wanted to be a Yankee his entire career. He was famously willing to take a discount to sign with the Yankees prior to the 2005 season, but that didn’t happen. Beltran also said he was open to taking a discount to come to the Bronx a few years back, before he signed with the Cardinals. Again, it didn’t happen. Two years ago Beltran finally got his wish and signed with the Yankees. I’m sure he’d love to stay with them beyond 2016 if possible.

Given their current M.O., the Yankees don’t figure to have a place for Beltran on the 2017 roster. They are skewing young whenever possible and Alex Rodriguez still has another year on his contract, so the DH spot won’t be available. The team also has Aaron Hicks plus a small army of young outfielders in Triple-A (Aaron Judge, Slade Heathcott, Ben Gamel, Mason Williams) who are all options to step into right field full-time next year.

It seems Beltran’s best bet to extend his career beyond 2016 is joining an AL team that can DH him full-time. David Ortiz is retiring, so maybe it’s the Red Sox. Edwin Encarnacion is a free agent, so maybe it’s the Blue Jays. Or the White Sox with Adam LaRoche coming off the books. DH jobs should be open. The question is can Beltran still produce? And would teams be willing to give him full-time at-bats? The Yankees seem unlikely to do that.

Refsnyder passes first test at the hot corner as Girardi clarifies plans for final bench spot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time in his professional career, Rob Refsnyder played third base yesterday, and the limited look was positive. Refsnyder had to make two plays and neither was routine; both were hot shot grounders hit almost right at him. He scooped the first grounder and threw to second to start a 5-4-3 double play. He scooped the second grounder and threw to first for the out. It went as well as the Yankees could have hoped.

“How you drew it up,” said Refsnyder to Chad Jennings after the game when asked about his first real game speed experience at third base. “I was talking about it yesterday. I just want a hard one … I felt good, comfortable. My goal was to kind of be aggressive, try to make a lot of plays, do a lot of different things on both sides of the ball. I just wanted to be aggressive.”

Two plays do not a make a third baseman. Yesterday was nothing more than a good first step for Refsnyder, who is trying to increase his versatility and improve his chances of making the Opening Day roster. “I kind of understand my role going forward with this team,” he added. “I’m just trying to do my job and help the team out as much as possible. I’m kind of all over it. I split my time, try to get reps in everywhere, wherever Joe needs me.”

The Yankees intend to try other players at third base this spring as they look for a suitable backup for Chase Headley. At some point Starlin Castro will play third. Others will get a chance too. Did you notice who replaced Refsnyder yesterday? It was Ronald Torreyes, another bench candidate. He took over at the hot corner and made a tough play himself, on a similar well-struck grounder hit into his general vicinity.

Brian Cashman said over the winter the Yankees plan to use their final bench spot as something of a revolving door to give Joe Girardi whatever he needs at any given time. An extra infielder, an extra arm, whatever. It’s a good idea in theory. I’m curious to see how it works in practice. Girardi, however, said yesterday the team has to take someone who can play third base, so right now it seems the Yankees are leaning in that direction.

“You have to take someone who can play third. You really have to see how this plays out. You have guys like a (Donovan) Solano, and a Castro, and a Torreyes and a (Jonathan) Diaz, who have played all over,” said the skipper to George King. Refsnyder is in that mix as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have started at third base yesterday. Same with Torreyes. He’s a natural middle infielder who’s played only 36 career games at the hot corner, yet there he was yesterday.

I know their statements sound contradictory but Cashman and Girardi are not at odds here. They’re on the same page. The Yankees can use the final bench spot on a backup third baseman come Opening Day and still use it as a revolving door throughout the season. Whoever breaks camp with the team in that roster spot won’t necessarily stay there. As with the bullpen shuttle, playing well doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll keep your big league job.

The Yankees figure to see several lefty starters in the first two weeks of 2016 — they open the season with series against the Astros (Dallas Keuchel), Tigers (Daniel Norris), Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), and Mariners (Wade Miley, James Paxton) — so perhaps Refsnyder’s righty bat will be worth carrying in April. And then in a few weeks it might make sense to carry another outfielder. Or an eighth reliever. Who knows how things will shake out.

For now, Refsnyder is very early in the process of increasing his versatility. Yesterday’s five innings at third base were encouraging and certainly didn’t hurt his chances of making the team. I assume the Yankees will run him out there again in a few days along with Torreyes and Castro and whoever else. Refsnyder at third base is an experiment worth trying, and if nothing else, yesterday showed this might not be as far-fetched as it once seemed.

Michael Pineda and Getting the Results to Match the Stuff [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has now been four years since the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners, and during those four years he’s thrown only 237 innings due to a variety of injuries. His 2012 labrum surgery is by far the most serious physical issue — it wasn’t until 2014 that Big Mike actually threw a regular season pitch in pinstripes — but he’s also had lat and forearm problems. Health is a skill and Pineda doesn’t have it.

“My biggest goal this season is, No. 1, try to be healthy for pitching the whole year,” said Pineda to reporters when he reported to Spring Training. “I’m a young guy, but every year you have to learn how to get better and better … For me, this year, I’m coming here early to be strong and working hard to pitch 200 innings this year. I want to throw 200 innings this year. This is my goal, and help my team.”

Throwing 200 innings seems optimistic but it is not far-fetched. Pineda threw 160.2 innings last season around the forearm issue, which sidelined him for a month in the second half. He was on pace for 200+ innings prior to that. It’s important to remember starters are throwing fewer innings than ever before nowadays, so 200 innings is becoming increasingly rare. Only 28 pitchers threw 200+ innings in 2015. Five years ago 45 pitchers did it. There’s no shame in falling short.

Pineda wants to stay healthy this season and throw 200 innings and that’s great. That’s the sort of goal he should be setting, especially given his injury problems the last few years. The Yankees, however, should be focused on the quality of Pineda’s innings, not the bulk total. Last season he had a 4.37 ERA (90 ERA+) in his 160.2 innings, and he was both hit (9.9 H/9) and homer (1.2 HR/9) prone. It’s fair to say Big Mike was disappointing in 2015.

That has to improve in 2016. Pineda’s way too talented to be an average-ish starter. His strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) rates were excellent — only Bartolo Colon (2.9%) had a lower walk rate among the 79 pitchers to throw 160 innings in 2015, and only Max Scherzer (8.12) had a better K/BB ratio (7.43) — and thanks to his improving changeup, Pineda also posted an above-average ground ball rate (48.2%) for the first time. That’s all good. A 3.34 FIP? That’s awesome. That’s what you want to see.

And yet, opponents hit .278/.301/.451 against Pineda with a .332 BABIP that is a bit high but not outrageous. That includes a .250/.255/.423 batting line when he was ahead in the count. That looks good on the surface, but the league average batting line was .206/.214/.307 when the pitcher was ahead. Pineda performed way, way worse than the league average in those situations. Roughly 57% worse, to be exact.

It sounds weird, but Big Mike might actually be a guy who throws too many strikes. Throwing strikes is good! But you don’t want to be over the plate all the time either. There’s a time to strategically expand the zone and “waste” pitches for the sake of unpredictability. Pineda very rarely does that. Here, check out some PitchFX data:

Zone % Overall Zone % Ahead in Count Zone % with Two Strikes
Pineda 51.4% 57.9% 34.9%
AL Average 47.8% 45.8% 33.0%

Pineda throws pitches in the strike zone at a rate higher than league average in general, when ahead in the count, and with two strikes. The rate when ahead in the count is staggering. Pineda throws nearly 60% of his pitches in the zone when ahead in the count — when the hitter is on the defensive — even though the league average is around 45%. I mean, geez, waste a pitch once in a while dude.

Last season Pineda threw a first pitch strike 63.8% of the time, comfortably above the 60.9% league average. He went to an 0-2 count in 23.1% of all plate appearances last year, the 14th highest rate in baseball. That’s really good. Big Mike did an exceptional job not just getting ahead in the count last season, but getting into extremely pitcher friendly 0-2 counts. The MLB average was .171/.200/.259 following an 0-2 count in 2015. It was .203/.208/.333 against Pineda.

Hitters swung at 35.7% of Pineda’s pitches out of the strike zone last year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. They made contact with only 57.2% of his pitches out of the zone, the 15th lowest rate in baseball. Do you understand what that means? Whenever Pineda threw a pitch out of the zone last season, hitters swung at an extremely high rate and made contact at an extremely low rate. He got lots of whiffs on pitches out of the zone. This is good! Big Mike needs to do more of this. It’s not like he walks a lot of hitters and is prone to creating jams himself.

There is a balance to be struck here. You want Pineda to retain his aggressiveness and continue to get ahead in the count because when the pitcher is ahead in the count, batters perform worse overall. There is decades of data showing this is the case. At the same time, the Yankees want Pineda to do a better job putting hitters away when ahead in the count, and part of the solution can be throwing fewer pitches in the zone. That ostensibly would reduce the number of hits allowed since there won’t be as many square-up-able pitches around the plate.

The Yankees got pretty lucky. Pineda’s stuff has bounced back very well following shoulder surgery and he’s even managed to add a changeup, which was a goal following the trade. The quality of his stuff is obvious when you watch him pitch. That’s why Pineda was so frustrating last year. The stuff is there, the results are not. Pineda has the raw tools to dominate and we’ve seen flashes of that dominance. Now it’s a matter of tweaking the game plan to optimize the stuff.

I’m of the belief Pineda’s ERA will never match his FIP as things stand right now. Not as long as he calls homer happy Yankee Stadium home, and not as long as he lives around the plate so much. There’s nothing Big Mike and the Yankees can do about Yankee Stadium. They can control the game plan though, and using the hitter’s aggressiveness against him by throwing more pitches out of the zone — especially when ahead in the count — looks like a possible way to get Pineda to be something more than league average in 2016.