Not surprisingly, a team other than the Yankees has signed free agent Cuban infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. That team is the Blue Jays, according to Jesse Sanchez. Joel Sherman hears it’s a seven-year contract worth $22M. Because of his age, the deal does not count against Toronto’s international spending pool.
Lourdes and his older brother Yulieski defected last year. They were two of the very best players left in Cuba. Yulieski, 32, signed a five-year deal worth $47.5M with the Astros in July. Following a brief stint in the minors, he was called up to Houston and hit .262/.292/.385 (82 wRC+) with three homers in 36 games.
The 23-year-old Lourdes is considered a lesser player than his brother and a very good but not great prospect. He’s not another Yoan Moncada. The consensus is Lourdes will need some time in the minors before helping out at the big league level, like his brother. Both Gurriels are infielders.
The Yankees reportedly worked out both Gurriel brothers over the last few months, though, as has been the case with big name Cuban players for a while now, they didn’t sign either one. The last high-profile Cuban player signed by the Yankees was Jose Contreras.
Building a quality bench is more difficult than it seems. Bench players are like relievers. Their performance can fluctuate wildly from year to year because they inherently work in small sample sizes, and weird stuff happens in small samples. A bench guy will hit .330 with a ton of clutch hits one year, then struggle to get off the interstate the next. Happens all the time. That’s baseball.
The Yankees have spent the last few years building their bench through trades and from within. Signing free agent bench players is tough. Bench guys usually look for the most playing time when they hit free agency, and the Yankees rarely offer that. They tend to have a defined roster with set players at each position. This year, the Yankees cycled through a pair of bench players — one acquired via trade, the other developed from within — capable of playing first base, second base, and right field. Neither worked out too well.
The Good Fit Who Didn’t Hit
Last year at the trade deadline the Yankees made just one small trade, acquiring Dustin Ackley from the Mariners for spare parts Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley, a former top prospect and No. 2 pick in the draft, seemed like a decent enough upside play. He’s versatile, and the Mariners haven’t had much success developing hitters over the years, so a change of scenery could have helped.
Ackley, now 28, had a nice little run with the Yankees after the trade, hitting .288/.333/.654 (162 wRC+) with four homers in 57 games. His spot on the 2016 bench was secure. Ackley had a very strong Spring Training, putting up a .298/.313/.404 batting line, and I remember wondering how the Yankees would get him in the lineup. They’d have to sit Mark Teixeira now and then, same with Starlin Castro and Carlos Beltran. And Alex Rodriguez.
Once the season started, Ackley rarely played, and when he did get a chance to play, he didn’t perform. That seems to be how these things work. A guy appears to fit the roster well based on his positional versatility and bat, but he doesn’t play. Call it the Curse of Garrett Jones™. Ackley appeared in nine of the Yankees’ first 29 games and started only four of them. During that time he went 2-for-17 (.118) at the plate. Yeah.
Injuries to A-Rod, Teixeira, and Jacoby Ellsbury opened up some playing time in May, so at one point Ackley started 13 of 24 team games and appeared in six others. In those 24 team games, he went 7-for-44 (.159). On May 29th, Ackley’s season came to an abrupt end when he managed to tear the labrum in his right shoulder diving back into first base on a pickoff throw.
In 28 games and 70 plate appearances this season, Ackley hit .148/.243/.148 (11 wRC+) with six runs scored, four runs driven in, eight walks, and nine strikes. He did not have an extra-base hit or a multi-hit game. Ackley saw his most action at first base (85 innings), and he also saw time in right (54.1 innings) and at second base (one inning). Not to be forgotten is this great play at Camden Yards:
The Utility Man in Training
Over the past two seasons the Yankees have made it pretty clear they believe Rob Refsnyder is most valuable in a utility role. They didn’t give him a chance at second base last year whenever Stephen Drew slipped into one of his long stretches of nothingness, and when Refsnyder showed up to Spring Training this year, the Yankees pointed him towards third base and said get to work.
During Grapefruit League play Refsnyder saw most of his work at the hot corner, playing 54.1 innings at third compared to only 27 at second. He didn’t see any time in the outfield. For the most part Refsnyder handled himself well. He made the routine plays and that was about it. He didn’t look comfortable there, but he handled it well. At least until taking ground balls to the face on consecutive days at the end of March. Ouch.
The Yankees went with Ronald Torreyes for their backup infielder spot — fun fact: Torreyes is 17 months younger than Refsnyder — mostly because he can play shortstop and is a better all-around defender than Refsnyder. The Yankees sent Refsnyder to Triple-A Scranton and had him continue working out at third base. He also got reacquainted with right field. The team tried to make him as versatile as possible.
Refsnyder was called up for the first time in mid-May, after A-Rod landed on the DL with a hamstring injury. That stint in the show lasted one game. He started in right field on May 28th, when 1-for-3 with a double against the Athletics in Oakland, then was sent down five days later. Four days after that, he was called back up. Refsnyder returned after Ackley blew out his shoulder diving into first base.
The second stint with the Yankees was much longer than the first. Refsnyder remained with the big league team until mid-August, and during this stint the club gave him a crash course at first base to help cover during Teixeira’s knee injury. Refsnyder had literally one afternoon session with infield coach Joe Espada before getting a start at first base. The Yankees threw him to the wolves.
As with third base in Spring Training, Refsnyder’s early work at first base was fine. He made the plays he was supposed to make, though occasionally his inexperience showed. He’d wander too far off the base for a ball he should have let the second baseman take, that sort of thing. All things considered, Refsnyder handled the new position well on such short notice. He spent three weeks as the everyday first baseman while Teixeira was hurt too.
Once Teixeira returned, Refsnyder became a platoon player who was regularly in the lineup against righties, often hitting second. Usually he played right field, but he also saw action at first base, second base, and even some left field. Following a quick demotion to Triple-A in August — the Yankees were running thin on arms at the time and needed bullpen reinforcements — Refsnyder returned once rosters expanded in September and resumed his role as a platoon player.
Through three different call-ups, the 25-year-old Refsnyder hit .250/.328/.309 (72 wRC+) with good strikeout (17.1%) and walk (10.3%) rates in 175 plate appearances with the big league team. He also hit .274/.370/.355 (94 wRC+) against lefties. His at-bats were good, Refsnyder is a grinder at the plate, but he also hit for no power. Literally zero home runs despite calling Yankee Stadium home and watching balls fly out of the park all around the league all summer.
Refsnyder socked eight doubles in his first 83 at-bats with the Yankees, which is really good, especially considering he played sparingly. He then had one extra-base hit, a double, in his final 92 plate appearances of the season. Yikes. Here, look at Refsnyder’s spray chart, via Baseball Savant:
I count four balls hit to the warning track on the fly. In 175 plate appearances. Goodness. Refsnyder’s average batted ball distance was a mere 197 feet. That’s slap hitter territory. Chris Stewart (197 feet), Denard Span (196 feet), and Ichiro Suzuki (195 feet) reside there. Refsnyder, whose calling card is his bat, put the ball on the ground way too often (52.8%) and didn’t generate enough hard contact (26.4% vs. 31.4% MLB average).
Give Refsnyder credit. He worked really hard to learn third base and then first base on the fly in an effort to make himself more valuable to the Yankees. And perhaps all the work he did on the defensive side of the ball took away from his offense. Refsnyder wouldn’t be the first guy to go through that. Either way, he’s a bat first player whose bat wasn’t good enough in 2016. Quality at-bats are nice! But more production is needed going forward.
I really have no idea what the future holds for Refsnyder at this point. I could see him being an up-and-down bench guy next year. I could see him spending the entire season as a platoon bat. I could see him getting traded. There’s a whole world of possibilities. Refsnyder has one more minor league option left for next year, so the Yankees have some time. He’s a nice depth player to have. At some point though, Refsnyder’s going to have to take an opportunity and run with with it.
Only nine questions in the mailbag this week, but they’re nine good ones, and some of the answers are longer than usual. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions and comments throughout the week.
Nate asks: I’m hearing rumors that Goldschmidt could be traded. What kind of package would it take for the Yankees to land him?
They aren’t really rumors, it’s mostly just speculation. The Diamondbacks just hired Mike Hazen away from the Red Sox to be their new GM, and anytime a new GM is hired, the assumption seems to be he’ll tear it all down and rebuild. With Arizona, you could argue that rebuild is necessary. I think they might be a little closer to contention than the consensus though. Who knows.
If the D’Backs do put Paul Goldschmidt on the market — and assuming Hazen doesn’t trade him to Boston for a bunch of prospects he fell in love with while there — then yes, the Yankees should absolutely, 100% be in on him. Goldschmidt is a bonafide franchise player and MVP caliber performer. You open the farm system and make everyone available, even the Gleyber Torreses and Clint Fraziers.
The facts: Goldschmidt turned 29 in September and he hit .297/.411/.489 (134 wRC+) with 24 home runs and 32 steals in 37 attempts in 2016. That was his worst season since 2012. The guy hit .309/.412/.556 (158 wRC+) from 2013-15 and averaged 29 homers and 15 steals per season, and he’s maybe the smartest hitter in MLB in terms of making adjustments and reading pitchers. Goldschmidt is also a top notch defensive first baseman and an all-around swell guy. Assuming his club options are picked up, he’s owed only $34.475M from 2017-19. Peanuts.
If I were the D’Backs, I couldn’t trade Goldschmidt to the Yankees without getting Gary Sanchez in return. He’s a must have. Sanchez, Torres, and Greg Bird is my starting point, then I want another piece or two. I’m thinking one of the MLB ready starters (Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, etc.) and a lower profile prospect like Chance Adams. Sanchez, Bird, Torres, Adams, and say Cessa for Goldschmidt. Yay or nay? I think you could argue a) it’s not unreasonable for the D’Backs to demand that, and b) it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees to do that at this point in time.
Eugene asks: In the never gonna happen department, is someone like Andrew Cashner a candidate to become the next Miller-ian relief monster? He’s a tall semi-failed starter named Andrew with facial hair.
No. The big difference between Andrew Miller and all these “throws hard as a starter but still kind sucks anyway” guys like Cashner and Nathan Eovaldi is his slider. Miller has that devastating slider to go with his big fastball. (It also helps being 6-foot-7 with those long arms and long extension.) Cashner and Eovaldi don’t have that dominant secondary pitch. I do think those guys would be more effective in relief — almost everyone is more effective in relief — but not Miller-esque. Miller’s a different animal.
Matt asks: I know this is nitpicky but it’s been reported several places (including the BA Yankees top 10) that Cashman had the choice between Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez. I know what the rankings say and that decision like this should be about talent and not position but I’ve definitely been left wondering if this was a mistake. With the glut of SS prospects the Yankees have and the lack of power in the MLB, was passing on a guy like Jimenez, who has the pedigree, athleticism, and power to be come a middle of the order bat in favor of Torres a mistake?
That’s what was reported at the time of the trade. The Yankees had their pick of Torres and Jimenez, and opted for the shortstop over the corner outfielder even with their glut of shortstops. Why? Because shortstops tend to be the best athletes are most capable of moving to other positions. The Yankees have some quality corner outfield bats — to be fair, they hadn’t yet acquired Frazier at the time of the Aroldis Chapman/Torres trade — but not as many as they do shortstops.
Jimenez, 19, hit .329/.369/.432 (169 wRC+) with 14 homers in 464 plate appearances in Low-A ball this year. He really jumped into the national spotlight at the Futures Game this summer.
There’s really no wrong answer here. The Yankees could have had the brute force corner outfield masher, or the more well-rounded shortstop. I would have gone with the shortstop as well. There are some plate discipline concerns with Jimenez, and he’s already playing a non-premium position. Gleyber projects to be a pretty damn good hitter himself, and he does more on the bases and in the field. I’d be happy with either guy. All other things being equal though, give me the shortstop and the better athlete. (And the guy who is a level closer to MLB too.)
P.J. asks: Assuming Jason Hammel is healthy and considering he’ll pitch most of 2017 at 34 years old is he worth it for the Yankees to make a serious run at this winter on a 2 or 3 year deal? Does he fit the bill as a #2 to slot in behind Tanaka and in front of Sabathia?
I was really surprised the Cubs declined Hammel’s $12M option. They had to pay him a $2M buyout anyway, so it was essentially a $10M decision. In this market $10M buys you about 120 league average innings, maybe less. For what it’s worth, Jesse Rogers says the Cubs let Hammel make the decision. He could either return to Chicago or test the market, so of course he picked free agency. Weird.
Anyway, I’m not sure I’d pencil Hammel in as a No. 2 starter, but I do think he’d be a solid addition to the rotation. He had a 3.83 ERA (4.48 FIP) in 30 starts and 166.2 innings this year, though his peripherals were pretty mediocre: 20.8% strikeouts, 7.7% walks, 42.1% grounders, and 1.35 HR/9. Hammel played in front of a historically great defense this season, something he probably won’t get to do next year regardless where he signs.
MLBTR projects three years and $42M for Hammel and that sounds about right to me. He just turned 34 in September, and it’s worth noting he ran out of gas the last two seasons. Hammel really limped to the finish, so much so that he wasn’t even on the Cubs’ postseason roster. I don’t think he’s a No. 2 at all, but I do think Hammel would be a nice add to the back of the rotation. He’d help, for sure.
Michael asks: Any interest in trading for Evan Longoria? His contract is not unreasonable and the Rays might be anxious to move him as they rebuild before his 10/5 rights kick in.
It would behoove the Rays to make him available, I think. Longoria just turned 31 and his best years are likely behind him. There’s also six years and $99M left on his contract, and for a small payroll club like Tampa, that could turn into a real albatross whenever his game slips for good. Chances are Longoria’s trade value is only going down from here, so this is their best chance to deal him and his remaining contract for a big prospect package.
As good as he is, I’m actually going to say pass on Longoria. I doubt the Rays would trade him to the Yankees anyway, but still. I’m totally cool with riding it out with Chase Headley for another two years, seeing what happens with Miguel Andujar, and leaving the door open for the Manny Machado (after 2018) and Nolan Arenado (after 2019) free agencies. Plus there’s a chance Torres winds up at third base in deference to Didi Gregorius too.
Jesse asks: Given the high trade value of elite relievers, does it make any sense to sign more than one of the top bullpen arms, then trade one at the deadline again?
Sure, in theory, but I imagine those guys are going to want a no-trade clause as part of their free agent contracts. They’re in position to demand it. Chapman was traded twice in the last year and Mark Melancon has been traded four times total. I doubt they want to go through that again. Kenley Jansen has never been traded, but he doesn’t need to experience it to know it can be hectic. These guys will get no-trades, I’m sure.
Also, one thing to keep in mind is potential damage to the team’s reputation. The Marlins have been signing players to big free agent contracts and trading them a year later for a while now. It doesn’t look good. A few players have turned down more money from the Marlins to sign elsewhere because of that. C.J. Wilson is the most notable. We can say “sign this free agent and just trade him,” but agents and other players around the league will notice, and you don’t want to develop a reputation for being player unfriendly.
Julian asks: I know we all want Greg Bird to fit in and immediately succeed as the new full time first basement, but with the Tigers apparently putting Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) on the table – should the Yankees look to him as another option? He’s expensive, but still only 33 and owed a ton of money for a long time but if the Tigers ate some (similar to Prince Fielder) would it be worth it?
Expensive is putting it mildly. There’s $212M (!) left on Cabrera’s contract through 2023. He turns 34 in April and is signed through age 40. Cabrera is still great! He hit .316/.393/.563 (152 wRC+) with 38 home runs this year and will go down as one of the ten best right-handed hitters in history when it’s all said and done. Maybe even one of the top five. I don’t want to undersell his greatness. Miggy is truly one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen.
Now, that said, this is the kind of contract the Yankees have been trying to get away from the last few years. Contracts with huge dollars committed to players over 30 whose best years are behind them. As good as Cabrera is, he’s not the hitter he was three or four years ago, and chances are he’s only going to get worse from here. Goldschmidt is in his prime and he’s signed dirt cheap. Cabrera isn’t. If the Yankees were a bonafide contender looking to get over the top, circumstances would be different. But they’re not. They’re a quasi-rebuilding team that needs more youth, not another albatross.
Chris asks: Any interest in Zimmermann with the Tigers? If so, what sort of haul would you expect it to take in terms of prospects?
Remember back in April when everyone was like “see I told you we should have signed Jordan Zimmermann, best contract of the offseason!” because he made three or four great starts? Good times. The guy finished the year with a 4.87 ERA (4.42 FIP) in 105.1 innings while visiting the disabled list a few times. The Tigers would probably love to unload this contract now.
The only way I’d trade for Zimmermann right now is in a bad contract-for-bad contract swap with Jacoby Ellsbury. There’s four years and $92M left on Zimmermann’s deal and four years and $89.5M left on Ellsbury’s deal. The Yankees need a starter more than they need an outfielder. I don’t see why the Tigers would want do that though. They’re trying to get younger and shed payroll. Zimmermann-for-Ellsbury does neither.
There are too many red flags for me to consider giving up actual prospects for Zimmermann and his contract. His strikeout rate (14.7%) was by far a career worst this year, and both his walk (5.8%) and homer (1.22 HR/9) rates were his worst since his rookie year way back when. There’s also this, via Brooks Baseball:
Hmmm. Ominous trend is ominous. Yeah, I’m going to say steer clear. I do think Zimmermann-for-Ellsbury would be worthwhile for the Yankees because it clears a logjam in the outfield and potentially addresses a need in the rotation. You’ve got to pay all that money anyway. You’d just be redistributing it to another part of the roster. But actual prospects with real value for Zimmermann? Nah. Not at this point of his career.
Steve asks: Classic hindsight question: given the SP “market”, was holding Nova and making a qualified offer the better route?
No way. Ivan Nova was so very far from a qualifying offer candidate when the Yankees traded him. The only reason he and his agent are talking about a $75M deal (!) right now are those eleven good starts with the Pirates, more than half of which were against the rebuilding Reds, Brewers, and Phillies. Could you imagine dropping a one-year deal worth $17.2M in front of Nova earlier this season? Not a chance. Someone’s going to pay big money to Nova assuming the Pirates version is the real him, and based on Ivan’s track record, they’re going to be disappointed.
Here is tonight’s open thread. The Browns and Ravens are the Thursday NFL game, and the Islanders and Nets are playing too. That’s pretty much it. You folks know what to do, so do it.
As expected, the Brian McCann trade rumor mill has started to heat up early in the offseason. The Yankees weighed offers for their erstwhile catcher at the trade deadline, most notably from the Braves, and are expected to do the same this winter. They’re trying to get younger and under the luxury tax threshold in the near future. Moving McCann would help accomplish both.
“The catching market is very thin, so it’s not surprising to anybody (teams are interested in McCann),” said Brian Cashman to Ken Davidoff and Joel Sherman at the GM Meetings this week. “A lot of teams have expressed interest and offers that I’ve said no to. If I ever get to a point where something makes enough sense, then Mac will have the final say, as he’s earned the right to have that final say.”
According to Mark Feinsand, Cashman has already identified one realistic trade partner for McCann. Jon Morosi says the Astros are interested — it’s unclear whether Houston is the team identified as a realistic trade partner — which makes sense. They need a catcher now that Jason Castro is a free agent — they played Evan Gattis behind the plate 55 times last year, yikes — and also a lefty bat to balance their lineup. Some notes and thoughts on all this:
1. Remember, McCann is in control here. McCann has a full no-trade clause, so he is in total control of the situation. He doesn’t have to go anywhere he doesn’t want to go. In fact, Sherman says Cashman “has deals he can make for Brian McCann right now,” but has waved them off because McCann is unlikely to accept a trade to those teams. McCann hasn’t given the Yankees a list of approved clubs. He’ll look at it on a case-by-case basis.
“I haven’t said, ‘Hey he has to be here or it’s not going to happen.’ Nor has Mac given me permission to do that,” said B.B. Abbott, McCann’s agent, to Sherman. “Mac basically wants them to come to him. If Cash says there is a deal in place, then I’ll go to Mac and he will say nay or yay … I don’t think this is a slam dunk that it happens, I really don’t. He made a choice to be in New York because that is where he wants to be and he got a full no-trade clause because of
Ken Rosenthal says McCann prefers the American League because he doesn’t want to catch 120+ games a year anymore, and wants to be able to DH. Apparently he told the Yankees he felt better physically in September than he had in years after handing the catching reins over to Gary Sanchez. That said, Rosenthal added McCann would also approve a trade to the Braves, his hometown team.
2. Okay, so what could the Yankees get from the Astros? Supposedly the Yankees want young pitching in a McCann trade. That’s the long-term need, anyway. The Yankees pushed for Lance McCullers Jr. (and Vince Velasquez) during Andrew Miller trade talks with Houston last offseason, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen for McCann. (Velasquez is with the Phillies now anyway.)
Even after removing McCullers from consideration, the Astros still have a handful of young arms worth targeting in a McCann trade. None of them are future aces — the Yankees aren’t getting anyone with that kind of upside for McCann anyway — though a few of them are potential long-term rotation pieces. Let’s run them down quickly (2016 ERA/FIP):
- RHP Chris Devenski (2.16/2.34 in 108.1 IP): Devenski, 26 on Sunday, spent most of the season in the bullpen. He has four pitches though, so there’s at least a chance he can start. Devenski’s minor league track record isn’t great, and given his success as a reliever in 2016, my guess is he’s a bullpener for life now. Once a fringe guy has that much success in relief, he usually stays there.
- RHP Michael Feliz (4.43/3.24 FIP in 65 IP): The 23-year-old Feliz has the Michael Pineda starter kit: mid-90s gas and a wipeout slider, but his changeup lags. Like Devenski, he spent most of the season in the bullpen, but I think he’ll get another chance to start given his age.
- RHP Joe Musgrove (4.06/4.81 FIP in 62 IP): Musgrove was a top 100 prospect last year but he doesn’t look like a typical top pitching prospect. He’s a command and control guy with a low-90s gas and three secondary pitches (slider, curve, change). Musgrove turns 24 next month.
- RHP David Paulino (5.14/4.29 in 7 IP): Paulino is a flamethrower. He sits mid-90s and touches 99 mph, even as a starter, and his curveball is an out-pitch. He’s still working on his changeup though. Paulino turns 23 in February. He missed all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery.
- RHP Brady Rodgers (15.12/5.31 in 8.1 IP): Rodgers, 26, is the least heralded pitcher in this post, but the guy legitimately throws six pitches (four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup) and he locates. Nothing sexy about him, but he’ll be a big leaguer for a while, even with a fastball that sits 90 mph.
Here is MLB.com’s top 30 Astros prospects list, if you’re interested in looking that over. My top three targets are Musgrove, Feliz, and Devenski, in that order, and I want the Yankees to get another piece too. You can’t trade a top ten catcher, even one on the wrong side of 30 like McCann, straight up for a pitching prospect. That’s asking for trouble. The second piece doesn’t have to be great, but there has to be something else.
3. The Yankees should be open to eating money. Money is the single biggest advantage the Yankees have over the rest of the league. Hal Steinbrenner is content with marginalizing that advantage by focusing on getting under the luxury tax, but it’s still an advantage. The Yankees should absolutely be willing to eat some of the $34M left owed to McCann the next two years in order to get a larger return. They ate money to facilitate the Carlos Beltran trade at the deadline, so I assume they’re willing to do the same with McCann. It just needed to be said. Essentially trading money for prospects is exactly the kind of move the Yankees should make.
4. Again: The Yankees don’t have to trade McCann! I’ve said this a bunch of times already and I get the feeling I’m going to repeat it another hundred times before the end of the offseason. The Yankees don’t have to trade McCann. Keeping him is a viable option. Having the best catching tandem in baseball sure would be cool, right? Especially since the two guys hit from opposite sides of the plate.
“Based on his success the past season, Sanchez is the everyday catcher. (McCann) can DH and catch a minimum of two games a week. We have two power-hitting catchers, one right and one left who hit 20 homers,” said Cashman to George King. By all means, take offers for McCann and negotiate like hell. If someone steps up with a strong offer, great, take it. If not, just keep him. No need to make a move for the sake of making a move.
Masahiro Tanaka‘s first two seasons with the Yankees were rather eventful. He was dominant for long stretches, especially early in the 2014 season. There were also injuries, including the partially torn elbow ligament and wrist and hamstring problems. And for a while last year, Tanaka was extremely homer prone. He was never actually bad though. Even with the dingers, he was still really good.
In 2016, Tanaka had his best and first full season with the Yankees. He wasn’t as overwhelmingly dominant as he was early in 2014, but he was consistently excellent and one of the best pitchers in the entire league. In fact, Tanaka was so good that when the Cy Young voting results are announced next Thursday, he figures to be among the top five or six names. Any doubts about Tanaka being an ace were answered in 2016.
Six Months of Excellence
With most players, I’m able to split these season review posts into different sections for different parts of the season. A hot start, a slow finish, things like that. It’s not possible with Tanaka. He was outstanding from start to finish this summer, and even his one “bad” month wasn’t even bad. It would have made for a fine season for any of the team’s other starters. Check it out:
April: 2.87 ERA (2.86 FIP)
May: 2.91 ERA (3.68 FIP)
June: 4.12 ERA (3.32 FIP)
July: 2.45 ERA (3.52 FIP)
August: 3.00 ERA (2.94 ERA)
September: 2.70 ERA (5.17 FIP)
Tanaka made 31 starts and he allowed no more than two runs in 20 of them. That was the fourth most such starts in the league. He had 12 starts of at least six innings and no more than one run allowed. That was third most in the league. His five starts of at least seven scoreless innings were the most in the league.
The best outing of Tanaka’s season came against the home run happy Orioles on May 5th, and in true 2016 Yankees fashion, they lost the damn game. He allowed five singles and one walk in eight scoreless innings at Camden Yards, striking out seven. Then the bullpen blew it. Womp womp.
Down the stretch in August and September, when the Yankees were making that little late-season run at a postseason spot, Tanaka had a 1.86 ERA (2.77 FIP) in eight starts and 53.1 innings. Overall this year, opponents hit .236/.272/.373 against him. That’s essentially Michael A. Taylor (.231/.278/.376). Tanaka turned everyone into an up-and-down fourth outfielder.
Tanaka’s season ended prematurely due to what Joe Girardi called a “slight, slight, slight” forearm strain. It was in the muscle up near his wrist, not near the elbow ligament. Tanaka skipped one start, and after the Yankees were eliminated from postseason contention, they decided to play it safe and shut him down completely. Had they been alive in the race, he would have made his scheduled start in Game 161. (Or so they say.)
All told, Tanaka made a career high 31 starts this year — that includes his time in Japan, he never made more than 28 starts in a season for a Rakuten Golden Eagles because the season is shorter in NPB and starters pitch every sixth day instead of every fifth — and he fell one stupid little out short of 200 innings. Here’s where he ranked among AL starters:
Innings: 199.2 (10th)
ERA: 3.07 (3rd)
ERA+: 142 (t-3rd)
FIP: 3.51 (5th)
WHIP: 1.08 (5th)
K%: 20.5% (19th)
BB%: 4.5% (3rd)
GB%: 48.2% (11th)
HR/9: 0.99 (9th)
K/BB ratio: 4.58 (4th)
Pitches per Inning: 14.7 (1st)
bWAR: 5.4 (3rd)
fWAR: 4.6 (6th)
By almost any measure, Tanaka was one of the top five or six starters in the American League this season. Had he not missed those last two starts, we’d be able to argue he was one of the top three or four. Tanaka was that good this year. He’ll get some well-earned Cy Young votes — he won’t win the Cy Young, but he’ll get votes — and will perhaps finally be recognized as one of the top starters in the game. A man can dream.
The New Look Tanaka
There’s a common misconception about Tanaka, that his fastball velocity has not been the same since his elbow injury in 2014. It’s not true. Tanaka’s four-seamer averaged 92.7 mph in 2014 and 92.7 mph in 2015. It was 92.1 mph this season. A starter losing half-a-mile an hour across three seasons is not unusual, especially considering his career workload. Furthermore, Tanaka’s fastball topped out at 96.7 mph in 2014, 96.3 mph in 2015, and 96.7 mph in 2016. The top end velocity is there too.
What has changed, specifically this past season, is the type of fastball Tanaka throws. Home runs were a real problem last year. Tanaka had a 1.46 HR/9 (16.9 HR/FB%) and a 47.0% ground ball rate last season. In an apparent attempt to keep the ball in the park, he started throwing more sinkers. From Brooks Baseball:
The sinker didn’t have the same velocity as the four-seamer — it averaged a mere 90.4 mph and topped out at 95.0 mph in 2016 — but gosh, the thing moved all over the place. PitchFX says Tanaka’s sinker average 8.2 inches of horizontal movement, fourth most among all sinkers, and 6.0 inches of vertical movement, which was eighth most. Replacing a straight four-seamer with a moving sinker sure seems like a good way to curtain home runs.
Sure enough, Tanaka’s home run rate dropped to 0.99 HR/9 (12.0 HR/FB%) this year even though his overall ground ball rate (48.2%) didn’t increase much. That extra movement is often the difference between the hitter squaring the ball up and hitting it off the end of the bat though. And keep in mind homers were up big time around the league this year. Tanaka cut his homer rate by one-third despite the league-wide increase in pop.
Now, as you can see in the graph, Tanaka didn’t sustain his sinker heavy approach all season. By August and September, he was again throwing his four-seamer more than the sinker. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps hitters were starting to adjust to the sinker and Tanaka adjusted back. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Tanaka’s two worst home runs months of the season were August (1.15 HR/9) and September (1.69 HR/9). Hmmm.
One thing we’ve come to learn about Tanaka these last three years is that he’s really crafty. He’s not a blow-you-away type. He succeeds with deception and trickery. He outsmarts hitters. He doesn’t overpower them. Tanaka throwing more sinkers in response to the homers was a smart adjustment that seemed to work. I’m not sure why he stopped throwing the sinker later in the season, but I guess we’ll see what happens in 2017.
Outlook for 2017
Next season is a very important season for Tanaka and the Yankees. He’ll be able to opt out of his contract after 2017 and enter free agency, and as long as he’s healthy, I fully expect him to do that. Tanaka would be leaving three years and $67M on the table, and if he repeats his 2016 effort in 2017, he’ll clear that easily in free agency. Heck, his performance could slip some and he’d still clear that easily. That’s the market these days.
The opt-out is not something worth worrying about now. That’s a problem for next offseason. It goes without saying that for the Yankees to have any shot at contention next season, even for a dinky second wildcard spot, they need Tanaka to be on top of his game. He’s an ace. He is. And if the Yankees lose him for any stretch of time or he pitches at something less than ace-level, their playoff chances will take a huge hit. This summer, Tanaka showed he’s up to the task of leading the rotation.