Yankees add Kyle Higashioka, Domingo German to 40-man roster

Higashioka. (Times Tribune)
Higashioka. (Times Tribune)

The Yankees made their first roster moves of the offseason earlier today. Both catcher Kyle Higashioka and right-hander Domingo German were added to the 40-man roster, the team announced. Dustin Ackley, Nathan Eovaldi, Chad Green, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow were all activated off the 60-day DL as well.

Brian Cashman confirmed Higashioka would be added the 40-man roster a few weeks back. The 26-year-old backstop broke out with a .272/.339/.496 (131 wRC+) batting line with 21 home runs in 110 games between Double-A and Triple-A this past season, plus he’s a strong defender. Higashioka would have become a minor league free agent had the Yankees not added him to the 40-man.

German, 24, came over in the Eovaldi-Martin Prado trade a few years ago. He missed all of last season and the start of this season following Tommy John surgery, and when he returned this year, he had a 3.29 ERA (3.82 FIP) with a 19.6% strikeout rate and a 5.9% walk rate in 54.2 Single-A innings. Like Higashioka, German was eligible for minor league free agency this offseason.

Ackley (shoulder), Eovaldi (elbow), Pinder (elbow), and Rumbelow (elbow) all missed big chunks of the season with their injuries. Green (elbow) got hurt in September. There is no DL in the offseason, so these guys had to be activated. The deadline to do so is Monday, though waiting the few extra days would have made no difference. The Yankees made the moves today and that’s that.

As best I can tell, the Yankees still have one open 40-man roster spot after losing Conor Mullee on waivers yesterday. I’ve kinda lost count after all the team’s recent moves. Mullee, Blake Parker, Anthony Swarzak, Kirby Yates, Donovan Solano, and Eric Young Jr. have all been dropped since the 40-man since the end of the regular season.

The Two Bench Mainstays [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Because baseball is so competitive these days, a strong bench is imperative for success. You can’t win with just eight or nine quality position players. Teams need good bench players capable of filling in without much of a drop off in production. That depth is often the difference between good teams and great teams. We see it every season.

As usual, the Yankees cycled through several different bench players this season due to injuries and ineffectiveness and whatnot. Two players remained on the bench all year though: Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes. Neither was a lock to make the team out of Spring Training, and yet, they stayed on the big league roster all season. You really can’t predict baseball, huh?

The Backup Catcher

A year ago Romine was barely on the big league radar. He was designated for assignment last Spring Training and slipped through waivers unclaimed, and when September 1st rolled around, he was among the first wave of call-ups only because Gary Sanchez‘s hamstring was barking. The year before Romine wasn’t called up until Francisco Cervelli got hurt in mid-September.

The Yankees kept Romine on the 40-man roster all offseason and brought him to Spring Training as backup catcher competition for Sanchez this year. They didn’t want to just hand the backup job to Sanchez. They wanted to make him work for it, and Romine (and I guess Carlos Corporan) was the alternative. Then a weird thing happened: Romine thoroughly outplayed Sanchez in Spring Training and won the backup job.

The combination of Romine outhitting Sanchez in camp (.289/.308/.474 vs. .091/.259/.136) and their roster statuses (Romine was out of options, Sanchez had one left) tipped the scales in Romine’s favor. It’s tough to think the Yankees made the wrong decision in hindsight too. Sanchez thrived in the second half after some more minor league seasoning and Romine turned in a decent year as the backup catcher.

As expected, Romine didn’t play a whole lot early in the season. The Yankees stuck with Brian McCann because he was the clear cut starter, and also because they were really struggling to score runs early on and wanted their best players in the lineup as often as possible. Romine started only five of the team’s first 22 games. His best month was May, when he went 12-for-37 (.324) with four doubles and a homer. That includes a 3-for-4 game with two doubles and two runs driven in against the Red Sox on May 7th.

Romine also went 3-for-4 and drove in two runs in a game against the Rays later in the month. His bat cooled down after that — Romine went 17-for-84 (.202) with three homers from June 1st through August 31st — before a nice little finish in late September. He had a pair of two-hit games within his final four starts. By then Sanchez had established himself as the starting catcher, so playing time was hard to come by.

All told, Romine hit .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) with three home runs in 176 total plate appearances this year, which stinks in general but is basically right on par with the league average backup catcher. He was surprisingly excellent with runners in scoring position, hitting .364/.354/.477 (111 wRC+) in those spots. I do love OBP > AVG batting lines. That’s what three sac flies and one walk will do for you.

Defensively, the numbers don’t match Romine’s reputation. He only threw out 16.7% of basestealers — to be fair, it’s a more respectable 22.2% if you remove Dellin Betances, who doesn’t hold runners — and both StatCorner (-3.8) and Baseball Prospectus (-1.9) say he cost the Yankees runs with his pitch-framing. FRAA, which is BP’s attempt at an all-encompassing catcher defense metric, rated Romine at -3.2 runs overall behind the plate.

It’s tough to gauge backup catcher defense with the eye test because they play so sparingly, though Romine does seem like a classic Nichols Law catcher. He doesn’t hit much, so his defensive reputation gets talked up. Romine will turn 28 later this month and he is what he is at this point. He’s a decent enough backup option. Someone you can stash behind a starter like McCann or Sanchez, who will play as much as possible. Not someone you want to platoon or use as part of a two-catcher timeshare.

Romine filled in capably early in the season as the Yankees gave Sanchez those extra reps in Triple-A. It’s hard to see how Austin fits into the team’s long-term plans. Heck, he might not even make it through the offseason. Sanchez isn’t going anywhere, I’d say the odds are against a McCann trade, plus Kyle Higashioka is being added to the 40-man roster. Romine had a decent enough season in 2016, yet his roster spot is not terribly secure.

The Backup Infielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The last 18 months have been pretty hectic for Torreyes. The poor guy has changed organizations five times since last May. Here is his transactions log.

  • May 15th, 2015: Traded by Astros to Blue Jays for cash.
  • June 12th, 2015: Traded by Blue Jays to Dodgers for cash.
  • January 12th, 2016: Traded with Tyler Olson by Dodgers to Yankees for Rob Segedin.
  • January 25th, 2016: Claimed off waivers by Angels.
  • February 1st, 2016: Claimed off waivers by Yankees.

Astros to Blue Jays to Dodgers to Yankees to Angels to Yankees. Five transactions and four different teams. And yet, Torreyes remained on the big league roster all season in 2016. Usually guys who bounce around that much in a short period of time don’t stick in the big leagues. Torreyes did.

Of course, Torreyes had to win a job in Spring Training first. He was up against Rob Refsnyder and Pete Kozma (and some others) for the backup infielder’s job, and Torreyes won it because he hit well enough in camp and offered the most defensive versatility. Simply put, Torreyes could out-hit Kozma and out-defend Refsnyder, so he made the team out of Spring Training.

Baseball America ranked Torreyes as the No. 26 prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system last offseason and we saw exactly what was in their scouting report this season:

Though he is 5-foot-7 with physical limitations, his bat control is terrific. He has a simple stroke, getting his body in position to create a swing that stays on plane through the hitting zone. That allows him to consistently find the barrel. He has a solid eye but doesn’t draw a ton of walks, while his well below-average power limits his impact. An average runner, he’s played at shortstop and third base, but his best fit is second, where he’s a solid defender with an average arm.

That perfectly describes Torreyes. That’s exactly him. Torreyes had an 11.9% strikeout rate and an 86.0% contact rate this season, both of which were far better than the league averages (21.1% and 78.1%). That contact ability allows him to go on ridiculous BABIP-fueled hot streaks. Torreyes went 8-for-17 (.471) with a double and a triple to start the season. He then went 14-for-26 (.538) with six doubles and a homer during an eight-game span in late-August.

With those insane hot streaks came long cold streaks as well. In fact, from May 1st through August 14th, an arbitrarily selected stretch of 95 team games, Torreyes hit .158/.238/.228 (25 wRC+) in 63 plate appearances. He didn’t hit and he didn’t play. I mean, 63 plate appearances in 95 games! And he was healthy and on the roster for all of them too. At one point Torreyes appeared in only six of 31 games.

Torreyes wasn’t playing for a few reasons, most of which weren’t hit fault. Chase Headley was very good after April, so it was tough to take him out of the lineup. Didi Gregorius was generally awesome all year, so it was tough to take him out of the lineup too. Starlin Castro had an insane hot streak to open the new season and that bought him a lot of rope. It was hard for Joe Girardi to take one of those guys out of the lineup with the Yankees needing wins.

Overall, Torreyes hit .258/.305/.374 (81 wRC+) this season, which is the most backup infielder batting line possible. I’m pretty sure every backup infielder is contractually obligated to hit .250-something/.300-something/.370-something. Ronnie also did the little things at the plate, like protect the runner on a steal attempt.

Ronald Torreyes swing

Torreyes didn’t strike out (11.9%), didn’t walk (6.0%), didn’t hit for power (.116 ISO), and didn’t steal bases (2-for-3). Only one of those things is a good thing. It’s tough to rack up big stolen base totals as a reserve player, though Torreyes did steal 12+ bases a bunch of times in the minors. It would be cool if he ran more next year.

It’s very easy to like Torreyes because he plays with a ton of energy and is short little guy. He and Gregorius had this thing where Didi would pick Torreyes up so he could high-five teammates after they hit home runs. It was pretty awesome.

Aaron Judge Ronald Torreyes

Torreyes is a classic underdog. He’s a little guy who doesn’t hit for power and has been in four different organizations in the last 18 months. You can’t help but root for him, especially when you see him go on one of his insane hot streaks. He’s a good bench player. That’s what he is. There’s not enough here to start — he’d have to start hitting for power or stealing a lot more bases, something like that — but Torreyes is a guy worth having on the bench.

I don’t think you can ever say a bench player is locked into a roster spot on next year’s team in November. Roles like this feature an awful lot of turnover. Torreyes is clearly the favorite to be the utility infielder again next season though. That’s not a stretch. Refsnyder and others might get a crack at the job in camp, as they should. Competition is a good thing. Torreyes did a fine job as the backup infielder this past season and there’s a chance he might stick around for a little while in that role.

Mailbag: A-Rod, Sanchez, Melancon, Colon, Desmond

(Drew Hallowell/Getty)
(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

Got eleven questions in the mailbag this week. I didn’t have the energy for more. Sorry. As always, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send your questions.

Roberto asks: What do you think the odds are of A-Rod serving as a hitting coach further down the road (similar to Bonds), and if so, could you see it being with the Yankees?

Very small. Alex Rodriguez wants to own a team, not coach or manage. I’m sure he’ll happily do the guest instructor thing — and the broadcaster thing, for that matter — for a while because he loves the game, but a full-time coach? Nah. Alex is not going to put himself through the grind anymore. He’s made too much money to do that. A-Rod wants to own a club one day — Future Rays Owner Alex Rodriguez sure has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? — and he’ll work towards that.

Chris asks: What do you think Yo Soy Gary’s ceiling is? Posada like?

That’s not fair to Gary Sanchez. Jorge Posada is a borderline Hall of Famer who caught 120+ games a year for nearly a decade while putting up huge offensive numbers. If Sanchez does anything close to that, it’ll be incredible. I do think Gary has All-Star upside. Perennial All-Star upside. Sanchez has the talent to hit something like .280/.340/.480 with 25+ dingers on an annual basis, and in this day and age, that’ll make him one of the best catchers in baseball. Plus he’s a decent enough defender with a rocket arm. Can I say Brian McCann-like rather than Posada-like? McCann was really good for a really long time, you know.

Jason asks: Is Melancon a better choice than Jansen or Chapman? Is he even in the same ballpark? I know you don’t like the off-the-field stuff with Chapman and neither do I. His lack of a second pitch also worries me. Jansen will be given the qualifying offer and will cost a first round pick. If you had your druthers, which reliever would you sign and how much would you be willing to pay him?

In the ballpark, sure, but Mark Melancon is clearly a notch below Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Still really good! Just a notch below the other two. I prefer Jansen even with the draft pick compensation. Something about 96 mph cutters with command gets me excited. My guess is Jansen — and Chapman for that matter — winds up with something like $16M a year for four or five years.

Melancon is insanely consistent year-to-year. You can pencil him for a 24% strikeout rate, a 4% walk rate, and a 57% ground ball rate (or thereabouts) every year. His velocity is slipping a little bit now that he’s over 30, though raw velocity isn’t as important to Melancon is it some other guys (coughChapmancough). He uses a cutter and curveball to disrupt timing and miss barrels. Melancon might get four years and $40M or so, and he won’t cost a draft pick either.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
Melancon. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Travis asks: If the return was high enough (remember it IS Dombrowski at the helm), would you trade Betances to Boston and sign two of Jansen, Chapman or Melancon?

Would I trade Dellin Betances to the Red Sox? Sure. Depends on the return, of course. It’s not my neck on the line though. I can’t imagine ownership is willing to stomach trading a very popular — and very productive — homegrown Yankee to the Red Sox of all teams. They could get the greatest prospects in all the land in return and that’s still enough to make you squeamish. Imagine watching Betances close out a World Series for the Red Sox. Yuck.

As I’ve said more times than I can to count, I’m open to trading anyone. The Yankees have no untouchables as far as I’m concerned. The bullpen market is pretty insane right now, and if a team wants to pony up big for Dellin, the Yankees would be foolish not to listen. Especially since they could restock the bullpen with top notch arms through free agency.

Jackson asks: Do you think Ronald Torreyes could fetch any trade value this winter? He’s still only 23, can play three positions (and outfield in a pinch) and had some stretches where he hit very well. It seems like there is no place in the organization for him going forward besides being a utility man but would another team want to take a chance on him? Love the blog, thanks for all that you do.

His trade value is tiny. The guy’s been on waivers like five times in the last two years. Torreyes is a really nice utility player. He makes a ton of contact and can play all over the infield, plus he plays with a ton of energy. That’s basically everything you want in a bench player. But the Yankees got this guy (and Tyler Olson!) for Rob Segedin, remember. There are other Ronald Torreyeses out there waiting to be traded for other Rob Segedins. These players aren’t that hard to find. Torreyes is a useful piece. He just has no trade value. Players like this very rarely do.

Steve asks: What are your thoughts on a potential Bartolo Colon or Hiroki Kuroda reunion (assuming of course he changes his mind about retiring)? With a weak FA SP market, if they can’t find any of the young cost controlled starters they are looking for on the trade market, maybe higher value one year deals with one of these guys would not be the worst investment in the world, especially if the 2017/18 FA class is the one they want to wait for for long term investments.

I have no reason to think Kuroda will un-retire — he just retired last week! — but if he does, give him a one-year contract. Nothing but love for Kuroda. Bring him back no questions asked. As for Colon, I don’t trust him in the AL, especially in a small ballpark. These days his four-seamer and two-seamer average 86-89 mph and they’re basically all he throws. The guy is going to turn 44 in May. Not sure how much longer he’ll be effective. I’d rather not be left holding the bag whenever it finally goes for good. It seems inevitable the Mets will re-sign him anyway, so this is a moot point. There’s just way too much downside to Colon. Same with Kuroda given his age (42 in February), really, but I love him and am irrational about it. So sue me.

Reginald asks: Since Lourdes Gurriel’s birthday has passed and he can be signed as a free agent without any international restrictions, what is the possibility of the Yankees signing him to further the youth movement? AND has there been any more movement concerning him?

No movement yet, as far as I know. Gurriel held a workout a few weeks back and that’s really it. His 23rd birthday was last month, which means the international spending restrictions no longer apply, allowing him to sign a contract of any size. There’s no real rush to sign now though. The season’s over. It’s not like Gurriel is missing out on games. He’ll sign soon enough. As for the Yankees, the odds of them signing any big name Cuban free agent are low. They haven’t signed one since Jose Contreras. Until they give me reason to believe they’re willing to be aggressive with that market again, I assume they’ll dip their toe in the pool but not dive in.

Dave asks: Howdy, Mike. After reading Pleskoff’s scouting report on Kaprielian, it appears that the Yanks’ best starting pitching prospect has a ceiling of a # 2/3. That’s very useful, but is it fair to say – given the present state of the game, with fewer & fewer aces hitting the FA market – that the Yanks only path to acquiring a true ace is via trade?

Yep. I agree with that. Well, I mean, the Yankees already have an ace in Masahiro Tanaka. Maybe one day he’ll get the recognition he deserves. The team’s only path to acquiring another true ace is trade, and they have the prospect ammo to make it happen. They could absolutely put together a package good enough to get Chris Sale, for example. The question is whether they want to make a move like that, or keep the kids for themselves. I can see both sides of that argument. Right now, I’m on team #KeepTheKids. The Yankees desperately need offensive help and they have some premium bats coming. Grow the bats, buy the arms.

Desmond. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Desmond. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Adam asks: What about Ian Desmond as a signing for the Yankees? He had a solid year and will cost a draft pick, but his potential defensive flexibility makes him an enticing “backup” for most infield and outfield spots. In particular, I wonder if he might displace Castro or Headley or perhaps even Gardner or Ellsbury if one is traded. What might it take to sign him?

It already feels like Desmond’s next contract will be loaded with regret for whichever team signs him, assuming it’s a decent deal and not another one-year contract. He hit .322/.375/.524 (138 wRC+) in the first half this year and .238/.283/.347 (65 wRC+) in the second half. That’s after hitting .233/.290/.384 (83 wRC+) last year. Desmond’s first half this year was the outlier, not the second half.

Also, I don’t see how he has defensive flexibility. He’s never played an infield position other than shortstop, and he has one year of experience in the outfield. I don’t think you can pay Desmond big bucks and assume a) the first half was the real him, and b) he can play a bunch of positions he’s never played before. He took to the outfield this year, so maybe he can do it. How much would you be willing to bet on it though? Desmond is a boom or bust player, and now that he’s over 30, the scales0 tip more toward bust with each passing day.

Andrew asks: Could you please discuss how many options Jacob Lindgren has left and if he will qualify for a fourth option because he has been injured? Also if the Yanks put him on the 60 Day DL for all of 2017, will he accrue MLB service time which would impact his becoming arbitration eligible some day?

Lindgren has one minor league option left and he’ll qualify for a fourth. The Yankees burned his first minor league option last season, when they sent him down following his initial call-up. They burned his second option this year, when they sent him down at the end of Spring Training. Because Lindgren suffered his elbow injury while in the minors this year, I’m pretty sure the Yankees can option him down again next year rather than place him on the MLB DL and allow him accrue service time.

There are a few different ways for a player to qualify for a fourth option and I don’t fully understand all of them. The easiest way is the one that will likely apply to Lindgren. If a player burns his three options within the first five professional seasons, he gets a fourth option. So assuming the Yankees use Lindgren’s third option next year rather than put him on the MLB DL, they’ll get a fourth option for 2018. Got it? Good.

Justin asks: What teams would (if any) have any level of interest in Jacoby Ellsbury?

Gosh, I don’t know. Teams that need a center fielder and either a leadoff or two-hole hitter are the obvious starting point. I guess that means the Nationals and Rangers? Possibly the Tigers too? The Astros, Indians, White Sox, Giants, and Cubs could also fit that criteria depending on how free agency shakes out. The Yankees are going to have to eat a bunch of money to trade Ellsbury. That’s just the reality of the situation. Either they’ll have to eat money or take a terrible contract in return. The odds are very strongly in favor of Ellsbury remaining with the Yankees next year and for the final four years of his contract.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Well folks, baseball is over. The Cubs are the World Series champs and now we’re on to the offseason, which is fun in it’s own way. Not as good as actual games, but still fun. Here is the official list of the 139 free agents from the MLBPA. Hopefully the Yankees give us a lot to talk about these next few weeks and months.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Falcons and Buccaneers are the Thursday night NFL game, plus all three local hockey teams are in action. Talk about those games or anything else here.

The Baby Bombers [2016 Series Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the 2016 trade deadline one of the most important periods in recent Yankees’ history. You probably have to go all the way back to the 2008-09 offseason for the last time the club made moves that so greatly impacted the future of the organization. The Yankees sold productive veterans at the deadline and not only added quality prospects, but they also opened big league playing time for young players.

Aside from Gary Sanchez, who had more impact than any other AL rookie position player in 2016, the two youngsters who most benefited from that suddenly available playing time were Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. The Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, released Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Mark Teixeira‘s playing time, which created a path for Austin and Judge to play nearly everyday.

History on Day One

Austin and Judge both made their MLB debuts on the same day. August 13th, the day after A-Rod was released. They batted back-to-back in the starting lineup too. Austin hit seventh as the first baseman and Judge hit eighth as the right fielder. Sanchez was batting sixth as the DH. It was a hell of an afternoon.

In their first big league at-bats, Austin and Judge made history by becoming the first set of teammates to hit their first career home runs in their big league debuts in the same game. And they did it back-to-back. And in their first at-bats. Like I said, it was a hell of an afternoon.

Hilariously, Austin’s home run was one of New York’s shortest of the season while Judge’s was one of the longest. The Yankees went young in the second half this season and were rewarded immediately. Sanchez was a force for two months, and Austin and Judge did something historic in their debuts. That sure was fun, wasn’t it? The back-to-back jacks were one of the best moments of the season.

Clutch Homers & Sporadic Playing Time

This was an incredibly important season for Austin. Last year the 25-year-old hit .246/.320/.361 (96 wRC+) with nine home runs in the minors and was so bad he had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. When September rolled around, the Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster to create space for someone else. He went unclaimed on waivers, then went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Ouch.

“You never want to go backward in this game but I think it was a great learning experience for me,” said Austin back in June. “This game humbled me very fast and I found out the hard way. I’m going to try and not let anything like that happen again and continue to work hard and go from there.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Greg Bird went down with shoulder surgery in February, and during Spring Training, Brian Cashman said Austin wasn’t even on the team’s radar as a potential first base solution. He was that far down the depth chart. Austin didn’t get an invite to big league Spring Training either. If he was going to get back on the 40-man roster and to the big leagues, he was going to have to earn it. The Yankees didn’t give him much of a look in camp.

When the regular season started, Austin returned to Double-A Trenton — this was the fifth straight year he’d spent time with the Thunder — and you know what? He didn’t exactly destroy the competition. Austin hit .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) with four homers in 50 games at Double-A. The Yankees only bumped him up to Triple-A because they called Chris Parmelee to the Bronx, and the RailRiders needed a first baseman.

Austin made the most of the opportunity. His game took off once he arrived in Triple-A in early-June. Austin hit .323/.415/.637 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers in 57 games with Scranton before called up to the Yankees in early-August. He hadn’t had that much success in the minors, even in a short stint, since his breakout 2012 season way back when. Austin forced the issue, exactly has the Yankees hoped. He made them take notice.

Things quickly went downhill for Austin following his debut home run. He fell into an ugly 5-for-36 (.139) slump with 13 strikeouts after that, which landed him on the bench for long stretches of time. The Yankees managed to climb back into the race in August and Teixeira simply gave the team a better chance to win at the time, so he played. Austin looked overmatched.

Joe Girardi gave Austin another look in early-September, and he wound up hitting two of the most important home runs of the season. On September 6th, Austin cracked a go-ahead two-run home run against noted ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez. It was his birthday too. Quite a way to turn 25, eh?

Two days later, Austin hit his third big league home run, this one a walk-off blast against the Rays. So, to recap, his first homer was part of the first set of back-to-back homers by rookies in their MLB debut, his second was a birthday blast, and his third was a walk-off. That’s a hell of a thing.

Austin hit two more home runs later in the month and finished his first big league stint with a respectable .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) batting line and five home runs in 90 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs gave the Yankees the lead. The other tied the game. All five were hit to right field in Yankee Stadium too. Austin showed off some serious opposite field power. Check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Tyler Austin spray chart

That’s a pretty interesting exit velocity spray chart. (Yes, I broke out an exit velocity spray chart.) Austin hit all of his home runs the other way, but he also pulled the ball with authority as well. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter and he wasn’t a pure opposite field guy either. Austin sprayed the ball all around. I don’t think that tells us much of anything in a 90-plate appearance sample, but it’s cool to see.

After being drafted as a catcher and dabbling at third base in the low minors, Austin is a pure first baseman at this point of his career. A first baseman who can play right field in an emergency situation. The Yankees ran him out there in right a few times late in the season and it was not pretty. I don’t recommend doing it often. Austin isn’t Teixeira at first base but he’s solid defensively. Makes all the plays he should make. He’s in the lineup for his bat though, not his glove.

With Teixeira retired, the Yankees now have a great big opening at first base, and Austin figures to come to Spring Training with a chance to win the job. It’ll be him and Bird, and you know what? The job could very easily go to both of them next season. I see them platooning and splitting time at first base and DH. A year ago Austin was so far off the radar that no team claimed him off waivers. The strong 2016 season and impressive display of opposite field pop put him in position to have a role with the Yankees doing forward.

The Adjustment Period

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season started, Judge was in a very different yet similar place as Austin. Austin had played his way out of the picture while Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect, someone who was going to get every opportunity to succeed. That was the big difference between the two. Austin and Judge were also similar in that they were going to have to prove themselves before getting a big league opportunity. Neither would be handed anything.

Judge, now 24, reached Triple-A in the second half last season and struggled, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games. Experienced pitchers picked apart the inevitable swing holes that come with being 6-foot-7. Judge spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working the team’s minor league hitting coordinators, and he reworked his hitting mechanics quite a bit. Here’s a GIF I’ve posted a few times now:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016That’s Spring Training 2015 on the left and Spring Training 2016 on the right. Judge added a bigger leg kick over the winter, and he also dropped his hands a bit. In fact, by time he arrived in New York, his hands were even lower. Judge kept dropping them and dropping them until he found a comfortable spot that more easily allowed him to get the bat into the hitting zone.

Judge started the Triple-A season fairly slowly, slow enough that some folks were saying his development had stalled out. He was sitting on a .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) batting line with seven home runs and a 26.2% strikeout rate through his first 50 games. That included an ugly 10-for-72 (.139) slump with 24 strikeouts. Judge looked overmatched, at least based on the box score, and there was reason to be worried.

That all changed pretty quickly. Following those tough 50 games, Judge went on an insane tear and hit .328/.463/.630 (216 wRC+) with nine home runs in his next 33 games. He dropped his strikeout rate to 18.8% and drew nearly as many walks (17.4%). That hot streak raised his season batting line to .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+). Unfortunately, on July 8th, Judge suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury sent him to the DL for a little less than a month.

Judge returned in early-August, went 12-for-34 (.353) with three home runs in ten games with the RailRiders, then was called up to the Yankees. He not only hit a home run in his first big league at-bat, he also went deep the following day too. Judge hit home runs in back-to-back games to start his big league career. He had two hits in his third game as well.

Like Austin, Judge fell into a slump after his big debut, going 4-for-36 (.111) with 20 (!) strikeouts in his next eleven games after the hot start. Girardi gave Judge a few days off here and there, but, generally speaking, he was in the lineup everyday. The Yankees were willing to live with the growing pains even while the team scratched their way closer to a wildcard spot.

Judge’s season came to a premature end on September 13th, when he tweaked his oblique taking a swing. Obliques are tricky. They’re very easy to re-injury if they’re not allowed to heal properly. The Yankees shut Judge down for the season and the good news is he’s already healthy and reportedly again working in Tampa with the team’s hitting instructors.

All told, Judge hit .270/.366/.489 (147 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 43 Triple-A games — that was his lowest strikeout rate since he was in Low-A two years ago (21.2%) — and .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) with three home runs and a 44.2% strikeout rate in 27 big league games. The good news: his hard contact rate was an insane 48.8%. (His soft contact rate was 9.3%!) Only Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity.

Now, the bad news: Judge’s contact rate was only 59.7%. Only one of the 452 players to bat at least 90 times this season had a lower contact rate. It was Madison Bumgarner at 59.2%. So yeah. (Austin had the third lowest contact rate at 62.0%, by the way.) Here are the pitch locations of Judge’s swing and misses, via Baseball Savant:

Aaron Judge whiffs

Many of the empty swings came on pitches that move and were on the outer half or out of the zone entirely. Sliders, curveballs, that sort of thing. Not all of them though. Judge’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was only 74.3%, which ranked 447th among those 452 batters with at least 90 plate appearances. Contact was a clear issue during Judge’s relatively brief big league stint. No doubt about it.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Judge has a history of starting slow each time he’s promoted before making the adjustment and getting on track. He did it at Double-A and he did it at Triple-A. Now he has to do it in MLB. The good news is Judge has made those adjustments in the past. It’s easy to stereotype this guy as a big dumb masher who grips it and rips it, but that’s not the case. His hit tool is solid. “He’s got more feel to hit than one would expect for a man his size,” said Baseball America’s scouting report before the season.

Strikeouts are always going to be part of Judge’s game. You can only shorten your swing so much when you’re 6-foot-7. The hope is Judge will be able to trim his strikeout rate down into the 23.0% range down the road while tapping into his obvious power potential. Judge is also a sneaky good athlete for his size too. He’s not a liability in right field at all. Heck, he robbed a home run without even jumping. His arm is a rocket as well. The guy flicked his wrist and the ball carried from the warning track to second base.

The right field job is Judge’s for the taking. The Yankees want him to take it and run with it in Spring Training, and never look back. They’re also not going to hand him the job either. They have other outfielders. Cashman said Judge will have to earn his roster spot like everyone else and I believe it. A poor, strikeout heavy spring could land him back in Triple-A. Either way, Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future, and hopefully the future starts on Opening Day 2017.

Cubs claim Conor Mullee off waivers from Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I missed this yesterday, but before they won the damn World Series, the Cubs claimed right-hander Conor Mullee off waivers from the Yankees, the team announced. Apparently the Yankees outrighted Mullee at some point earlier this week as part of their 40-man roster cleanup process.

Mullee, 28, made his big league debut this past season after spending parts of seven seasons in the minors. The Yankees selected him out of St. Peter’s in Jersey City in the 24th round of the 2010 draft, but Mullee was limited to only 27 total innings from 2010-13 due to a series of elbow injuries that required surgery, including Tommy John surgery and a pair of avulsion fractures.

The Yankees called Mullee up in mid-May when a fresh bullpen arm was needed, and in three games with the Yankees, he allowed one run on no hits and four walks in three innings. Can’t believe the Yankees cut the guy who literally allowed zero hits in the big leagues, you guys. Mullee’s season ended in August because he needed another elbow surgery, this one to treat a nerve issue.

With Mullee gone and both Mark Teixeira and Billy Butler becoming free agents this morning, the Yankees now have seven open 40-man roster spots. They also have five players who need to be activated off the 60-day DL by next Monday (Nathan Eovaldi, Chad Green, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Dustin Ackley), plus Kyle Higashioka will be added to the 40-man as well. Here’s our offseason calendar.