The 2017 season is a make or break year for Aaron Hicks

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Baseball people and writers tend to overuse certain key phrases. I know I’m guilty of it. “Ace” and “top of the rotation starter” are thrown around quite a bit, especially after a guy has a good month or two. “Five-tool player” is another big one. He’s got three better than average tools? Eh, close enough. He’s a five-tool player. Happens all the time.

Another popular one, and I suppose this isn’t limited to baseball, is “make or break year.” Two years ago folks were saying Gary Sanchez was facing a make or break year, which was preposterous. He was a 21-year-old catcher coming off a .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) line at a full season in Double-A. C’mon now. A few weeks ago I saw someone say Yoan Moncada was facing a make or break year. Seriously?

One Yankees who is truly facing a make or break year, meaning what very well might be his last chance to establish himself as an everyday player, is outfielder Aaron Hicks. Hicks turned 27 in October, so he’s not old by any means, but he’s also reached the point where he should have seized a full-time job by now. He’s four seasons and nearly 1,300 plate appearances into his career already. This isn’t a rookie we’re talking about here.

Overall, Hicks was undeniably disappointing in 2016, hitting .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) with eight home runs in 361 plate appearances. He did perform better after Carlos Beltran was traded away and his playing time increased — Hicks hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances around a hamstring injury after the trade deadline — which was nice to see, but ultimately it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

It’s easy to see why Hicks was a first round pick and why he continues to get chances. The athleticism is obvious, his arm is a rocket, his plate discipline is better than he gets credit for (18.8 K% and 8.3 BB% in 2016), and he’s a switch-hitter who can hit the ball a mile when he connects.

The bad news for Hicks is the Yankees don’t have an opening for him right now. Sure, they could play him everyday in right field next season, but I’m certain the team would rather see Aaron Judge grab that spot and run with it. Judge figures to get playing time priority over Hicks. Jacoby Ellsbury is locked into center field, meaning a Brett Gardner trade may be Hicks’ only path to regular playing time. A trade seems unlikely at the moment.

The raw ability is there and you hate to give up on it. And yet, you can’t wait forever either. There comes a point where a player is what he is, and Hicks is close to reaching that point, if he hasn’t gotten there already. He’s yet to play a full season as an everyday player, and part of that is the way his teams have used him, but he shares the blame too. Had Hicks performed better, the Twins and Yankees would have made more time for him.

Switch-hitters with this kind of pedigree and athleticism will continue to get chances, so it’s not like Hicks will be run out of the league if he doesn’t have a successful 2017. This might be his last chance to stake a claim to an everyday job though, his last chance to show he’s more than a spare part player. The Yankees have several young outfielders ready to break into the show soon, and the Hicks won’t be an obstacle unless things finally click.

“Giving up on a prospect is one of the hardest things to do,” said an executive to Chris Crawford (subs. req’d) recently. “We spend so much time with these players, sometimes we refuse to move these players in trades, and we want these kids to succeed. Sooner or later, however, we have to see them make the necessary adjustments, and if they can’t, we have to move on. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it has to happen.”

Prospect Profile: Gleyber Torres

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Gleyber Torres | SS

Background
Torres, who turned 20 last month, grew up in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. Baseball America ranked him as the second best prospect in the 2013-14 international class, and the Cubs landed him with a $1.7M signing bonus. Chicago exceeded their bonus pool to sign Torres and outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Baseball America’s best available prospect that signing period.

The Yankees acquired Torres from the Cubs as the headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade at the 2016 trade deadline. Torres, outfielders Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford, and righty Adam Warren went to New York for Chapman, an impending free agent. It was a four-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Torres signed at age 16 and the Cubs moved him up the ladder pretty aggressively. He split the 2014 season, his pro debut, between the rookie level Arizona League and short season Northwest League, where he hit .291/.381/.429 (132 wRC+) with two homers, ten steals, 18.4% strikeouts, and 13.5% walks in 52 games and 223 total plate appearances. Torres was nearly three years younger than the competition overall.

In 2015, the Cubs sent Torres to their Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, where he was the youngest player in the league on Opening Day by five months. Gleyber was excellent, hitting .293/.353/.386 (116 wRC+) with three homers, 22 steals, 21.0% strikeouts, and 8.4% walks in 119 games and 514 plate appearances. The Cubs had him finish the season with seven-game cameo at Low-A. After the season, Torres was ranked the team’s top prospect and the 41st best prospect in baseball by Baseball America.

Chicago moved Torres up to their High-A affiliate in the Carolina League to start last season, where he was the circuit’s second youngest player on Opening Day. Gleyber hit .275/.359/.433 (121 wRC+) with nine homers, 19 steals, 21.3% strikeouts, and 10.3% walks in 94 games and 409 plate appearances before the trade, prompting Baseball America to rank him the 27th best prospect in the game at midseason. MLB.com ranked him 17th.

After the trade, Torres hit .254/.341/.385 (115 wRC+) with two homers, two steals, 16.7% strikeouts, and 11.6% walks in 31 games and 138 plate appearances with High-A Tampa. He played the entire season at age 19 and was nearly four years younger than the competition. The Yankees sent Torres to the Arizona Fall League after the season, where he hit .403/.513/.645 (218 wRC+) with three homers and four steals in 18 games. He became the youngest MVP and batting champion in league history.

“I heard everything he did, and we’ve been very excited about this young kid ever since we’ve had him,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo last month. “He went out and played at a very, very high level, with kids that are older than him, with kids that played at a higher level than him. He was one of the kids that really shined. I think that really bodes well for us, and I look forward to seeing him (in the spring).”

Scouting Report
Torres, who’s grown three inches since signing and now stands 6-foot-1 and 175 lbs., stands out most for his ultra-advanced offensive approach. He knows the strike zone, recognizes spin, and has a plan at the plate. His right-handed swing is controlled but aggressive; Gleyber doesn’t get cheated when he swings, though he’s not a wild hacker either. Torres has good bat-to-ball skills and uses the entire field, though most of his over-the-fence power is to the pull side at the moment.

In the field, Torres combines great instincts with good defensive tools. He has soft hands, good range, and a strong arm. There’s very little doubt he can remain at shortstop long-term, though the Yankees are loaded at the position, so they’ve had Gleyber work out at second base. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some time at third base going forward as well. Torres is a good runner who can steal bags and push the envelope on the bases.

The total package points to a future star. Torres projects to be a complete hitter who hits for average and power, and draws enough walks to post high on-base percentages as well. He’ll also swipe some bags and save runs in the field, regardless of whether he remains at short or slides over to second or third. Torres is a very hard worker — he spent a lot of time with Chicago’s infield instructors and erased doubts about his ability to remain at short early in his career — and a mature player. There’s very little not to like.

2017 Outlook
Brian Cashman has already said Torres will begin the 2017 season with Double-A Trenton, and hinted at the possibility of a midseason promotion to Triple-A Scranton. Remember, Torres just turned 20 last month. He’ll be one of the youngest players in the Eastern League on Opening Day, if not the youngest, so it’s entirely possible he’ll make his MLB debut before his 22nd birthday. I don’t think he’ll reach the show this coming season, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out either. He could tear up Double-A, earn a quick bump to Triple-A, and force the issue.

My Take
When the Yankees were gauging the market for Chapman, I was hoping they’d get a Torres-caliber prospect in a one-for-one swap, and they managed to get Torres and three other players. Amazing. The trade far exceeded my expectations.

As far Torres himself, how can you not love the kid? The tools are as good as it gets, he’s a mature player who carries himself like someone who’s been in the league ten years, and he projects to have two-way impact. Torres is New York’s top prospect and one of the best 10-15 prospects in all of baseball. He and Gary Sanchez figure to be the faces of the franchise going forward, as the Yankees work to build their next championship team.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luis Valbuena

Bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)
The bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)

Now that we’re in January, the bargain-hunting period of the offseason has begun. Teams use these last few weeks before Spring Training to round out their rosters, and lots of free agents, especially the second and third tier guys, start to get antsy the longer they remain unemployed. That can lead to some nice value signings, the kind of signings that can be the difference in a division or wildcard race.

The Yankees are fairly well set on the position player side at the moment. A Brett Gardner trade or especially a Chase Headley trade would throw a wrench into things, but since those two are still Yankees, it’s not a problem at the moment. The only realistic spot to look for an upgrade is the bench, and even then New York has several young players who could fill out the roster, such as Rob Refsnyder.

If the Yankees are willing to go out into free agency to add another bench or platoon player, a possible target is former Astros third baseman Luis Valbuena, who remains unsigned even though the free agent infield market was so weak this winter. Justin Turner and Neil Walker were fair and away the best available non-first base infielders and both returned to their former teams. Valbuena is still out there. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s break it down.

Offensive Performance

Valbuena, who turned 31 in November, finally settled in as a starting player the last three years after bouncing around earlier in his career. From 2014-16, his three seasons as a starter, he’s hit .243/.334/.442 (115 wRC+) with a 21.7% strikeout rate and an 11.5% walk rate. He’s averaged 27 doubles and 22 homers per 150 games during those three seasons.

Before a hamstring injury ended his season in July, Valbuena managed a .260/.357/.459 (123 wRC+) batting line with 13 homers in 90 games. His strikeout (23.7%) and walk (12.9%) rates were right where they normally sit. Most importantly, Valbuena’s quality of contact has remained steady. No spike in ground balls or increase in soft contact. Nothing like that. Via FanGraphs:

luis-valbuena-contact

Valbuena is, quite simply, a left-handed pull hitter who hits the ball in the air quite often. His 46.7% pull rate is 23rd highest among the 235 players to bat at least 1,000 times over the last three seasons, on par with guys like Brandon Moss (47.0%) and David Ortiz (46.2%). Also, his 33.6% ground ball rate is eighth lowest among those 235 batters. Dude hits lots of fly balls to right field.

I needn’t tell you what happens when a left-handed hitter pulls the ball in the air at Yankee Stadium. We’ve seen some players change their approach in an effort to take advantage of the short porch over the years, most notably Mark Teixeira, but Valbuena doesn’t have to change anything. His natural swing produces fly balls to right field. Here are his last two seasons with the Astros, via Baseball Savant:

luis-valbuena-spray-chart

There are some opposite field dingers in there and that’s cool, but yeah, it seems Valbuena and the short porch would get along well. He’s basically unplayable against southpaws — Valbuena has hit .253/.344/.473 (126 wRC+) against righties and .206/.299/.335 (79 wRC+) against lefties the last three years — but a left-handed platoon player with pull power and lots of walks is a nice little role player.

Baserunning is part of offense too, and it’s important to note Valbuena is a net negative on the basepaths. He doesn’t steal bases (4-for-11 in attempts since 2013) and over the last three years, he’s taken the extra base just 30.5% of the time. That’s going first-to-third on a single, things like that. The league average is right around 40%. So, when it comes to creating runs, Valbuena does it by drawing walks and pulling the ball in the air against righties. That’s it.

Defensive Performance

Back in the day, Valbuena broke into the big leagues as a shortstop with the Mariners. He then moved to second base and later third base, where he’s played almost exclusively since 2012. Valbuena hasn’t played short since 2011 and he’s played only 210 innings at second since 2012. The Astros had him dabble at first base these last two seasons, but not much (277 innings).

The various defensive stats agree Valbuena is not a good defensive third baseman. Some say he’s close to average, others say he’s far below that. Here are his last three defensive seasons at the hot corner:

Innings UZR DRS FRAA Total Zone
2014 971 -4.9 -10 -12.3 -3
2015 835 -9.3 -1 -4.4 1
2016 683 -0.8 -1 +6.2 -5
Total 2,489 -15.0 -12 -10.5 -7

Yeah, not great. Valbuena can stand over at third base and fake it at first, maybe even second in an emergency, and that’s about it. He’ll cost his team runs in the field. So, if he stops hitting homers and drawing walks, there’s nothing to salvage Valbuena as a player. He can’t contribute in any other way.

Injury History

As I mentioned earlier, a hamstring injury ended Valbuena’s season in July last year. He suffered the injury running out a ground ball against the Yankees:

The injury was originally diagnosed as a strain, and during his rehab a few weeks later, Valbuena suffered a setback that required season-ending surgery to repair his hamstring tendon. I can’t find any recent updates, but reports at the time of the surgery indicate he’s expected to be 100% healthy well before Spring Training.

Aside from the hamstring, Valbuena has had no serious injuries in his career. He missed a month with a right oblique strain in 2013 and that’s it. The oblique and hamstring are his only two disabled list stints. The fact Valbuena is coming off surgery right now is a concern, it has to be, but injuries haven’t been a chronic problem. The guy pulled him hamstring, pushed his rehab too hard, and suffered a setback. C’est la vie.

Contract Estimates

The Astros did not tender Valbuena the qualifying offer — the hamstring injury put an end to that, I think maybe they would have given him the qualify offer had he stayed healthy — so he’s not tied to draft pick compensation. He’s a true free agent with no strings attached. Anyway, here are some contract estimates:

Less than I expected! Even with the injury, I feel like plenty of teams could use Valbuena at $7M a year for two years. Of course, third base is loaded around the league at the moment, so the demand might not be there. Based on my quick glance, the Braves and Padres are the only teams that could offer Valbuena their full-time third base gig at the moment. Maybe the Twins too if they commit to moving Miguel Sano to DH.

The hamstring injury and the lack of available third base jobs are the reasons Valbuena remains unsigned, and they could cause him to settle for a smaller than expected contract. I wonder if Valbuena will end up taking a one-year deal worth $6M or $7M, something in that neighborhood. That’s Mitch Moreland (one-year, $5.5M), Welington Castillo (one-year, $6M), and Jon Jay (one-year, $8M) territory. Remember, David Freese is a solid third baseman himself, and it wasn’t until mid-March that he signed a one-year deal worth $3M last offseason.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

The Yankees were said to be in “ongoing” talks with Valbuena during the Winter Meetings last month, and, at the time, it seemed like they were talking to him as a backup plan in case a Headley trade went down that week. His market has been very quiet since then. The last hard Valbuena rumor at MLBTR involved some interest from the Rays on December 17th. Prior to that it was the Yankees at the Winter Meetings. Yeah.

Okay, so anyway, as it stands, the position player portion of New York’s projected 2017 roster looks something like this:

Catcher: Gary Sanchez
First Base: Greg Bird or Tyler Austin
Second Base: Starlin Castro
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Headley
Outfield: Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Judge
Designated Hitter: Matt Holliday
Bench: Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes, Aaron Hicks, Austin or Refsnyder

There’s some wiggle room there — Judge could strike out his way to Triple-A during Grapefruit League play, for example — but that seems to be it. Barring a Headley trade, which seems unlikely, Valbuena would fill that “Austin or Refsnyder” spot on the bench. I suppose he could replace Torreyes, which would mean Castro serves as the backup shortstop, but the Yankees didn’t like that idea last year.

Is Valbuena a better player than Austin or Refsnyder right now? Almost certainly. In a vacuum, signing him to fill that roster spot makes the Yankees a better team. This isn’t a vacuum though. Filling the Austin/Refsnyder spot with Valbuena comes with some consequences, namely:

  1. No fifth outfielder. Austin and Refsnyder have outfield experience, mostly right field but also left, so they’re options out there. Valbuena is not. Hicks would be the lone reserve outfielder.
  2. No platoon bat for Bird. Austin or Refsnyder, whoever gets that bench spot, will presumably platoon with Bird at first base, at least against really tough lefties. The Chris Sales and David Prices of the world. Valbuena can’t do that as a lefty with platoon issues.

Maybe these are minor considerations. Torreyes has played a tiny little bit of outfield in his career and the Yankees might feel comfortable relying on him as the fifth outfielder since that guy usually only plays the outfield in emergencies anyway. And Bird might not need a platoon partner. The Yankees could force feed him at-bats against southpaws to help him develop.

The Yankees supposedly need to shed salary before making any more additions, so this might all be moot. I like the idea of adding Valbuena on a cheap one-year contract to bolster the bench — he could see time at both corner infield spots as well as DH — but who knows if he’ll actually have to settle for a cheap one-year contract. And if he does, would he be willing to be a bench player with the Yankees? The short porch is nice, but other clubs could offer more playing time.

There are some drawbacks to signing Valbuena as well, namely the imperfect roster construction. The Yankees are probably eager to see what Austin can do with more playing time, for example, and Valbuena would cut into that. It’s hard not to get excited about Austin’s opposite field power at Yankee Stadium. At this stage of the rebuild transition, seeing what a young player can do should take priority over adding a win or maybe two to the bench with someone like Valbuena, shouldn’t it?

Tuesday Night Open Thread

In case you missed it earlier today, ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees were released at FanGraphs. I’m going to write up a separate post with some thoughts once I get a chance to really dig through them, but there’s the link. The team’s top three projected home run hitters next season: Aaron Judge (30), Gary Sanchez (27), and Clint Frazier (22). Hell yeah.

This is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers and Devils are both playing, and there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games, the ZiPS projections, or anything else right here. Go nuts.

Yankees re-sign Nick Rumbelow and Cito Culver to minor league contracts

Rumblin' Rumbelow. (Rob Foldy/Getty)
Rumblin’ Rumbelow. (Rob Foldy/Getty)

According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees have re-signed right-hander Nick Rumbelow and infielder Cito Culver to minor league contracts. Rumbelow was designated for assignment and released earlier this offseason in a 40-man roster space saving move. Culver became a six-year minor league free agent following the season.

Rumbelow, 25, missed just about the entire 2016 season with Tommy John surgery. He blew out his elbow during his very first outing with Triple-A Scranton. Rough. By all accounts his rehab is going well and Rumbelow will be able to return to game action at some point in the first half next year.

During the 2015 season Rumbelow had a 4.02 ERA (3.84 FIP) with 22.1% strikeouts and 7.4% walks in 15.2 shuttle innings with the Yankees. He also had a 4.27 ERA (2.72 FIP) in 52.2 Triple-A innings that year. Once healthy, Rumbelow figures to jump right back on to the bullpen shuttle. He has a minor league option remaining.

Cito. (Presswire)
Cito. (Presswire)

The 24-year-old Culver was New York’s first round pick (32nd overall) back in 2010 and it would be an understatement to say he hasn’t developed as hoped. He’s a career .231/.307/.319 (81 wRC+) hitter in over 3,000 minor league plate appearances, though he is a fantastic defender. Culver’s a very good gloveman.

Last season was probably the best of Culver’s career. He managed a .248/.312/.348 (86 wRC+) batting line with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton while playing all over the infield. Culver’s a non-prospect these days and figures to again fill a utility role at Double-A and Triple-A in 2017.

I’m curious to see whether Rumbelow or Culver received an invite to Spring Training. It might seen pointless in Rumbelow’s case given his injury, but a non-roster invite means big league lodging and meal money and all that. It’s a heck of a lot better than rehabbing over in minor league camp. That’s for sure.

In addition to Rumbelow and Culver, the Yankees have also signed infielders Ruben Tejada and Donovan Solano, lefty Jason Gurka, and catcher Kellin Deglan to minor league deals this winter.

Revisiting the MLBTR Archives: January 2012

(Getty)
(Getty)

It’s a new month and a new year, so our MLBTR Archives series now jumps into 2012. I’m not going to lie, these MLBTR Archives posts can get pretty tedious at times, but this one was a lot of fun. January 2012 was a busy month for the Yankees, both in terms of rumors and actual transactions. Putting this post together was a blast.

Prior to January, the Yankees hadn’t done much during the 2011-12 offseason. They signed CC Sabathia to an extension and re-signed Freddy Garcia, and that’s about it. They still needed to address the rotation because, on New Years Day 2012, the starting staff was Sabathia, Garcia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova in whatever order. Egads. Time to jump back in time to January 2012. Come with me, won’t you?

January 3rd, 2012: Boras Seeks Five Years For Edwin Jackson

8:16pm: At the beginning of the offseason, the asking price for Jackson was in the Lackey/Burnett range ($82.5MM), tweets ESPN.com’s Buster Olney.  The Yankees haven’t had talks with Boras about Jackson, tweets Jack Curry of the YES Network. No talks are expected unless his asking price drops.

Jackson was a stathead favorite back then and he’d just had the best season of his career in 2011, pitching to a 3.79 ERA (3.55 FIP) in 199.2 innings for the White Sox and Cardinals. He was only 28 at the time too, so many saw him as a guy who was about to have the best stretch of his career. And on top of that, Jackson was a Type-B free agent, meaning he didn’t cost a draft pick. Sign him up, right?

The Yankees passed even though more than a few wanted them to go after Jackson given their questionable rotation. The Nationals were able to pick him up on a cheap one-year contract, which was telling. Jackson had Michael Pineda Syndrome in that he was way more hittable than his power stuff would lead you believe. He had a solid season for Washington in 2012 (4.03 ERA and 3.85 FIP) before signing a four-year contract with the Cubs and completely falling apart (5.33 ERA and 4.29 FIP from 2013-16). Sometimes the “he has great stuff and just needs learn how to pitch” guys never learn how to, you know, pitch.

January 5th, 2012: Yankees Fail To Reach Deal With Hiroyuki Nakajima

The Yankees and Hiroyuki Nakajima have failed to reach an agreement on a contract, the team announced. New York won the negotiating rights to the infielder with a bid around $2MM last month.

It was a surprise when the Yankees won the negotiating rights to Nakajima, who Brian Cashman said they viewed as a utility man. They offered him a small contract and wanted six years of team control, as if he were a typical rookie and not an overseas veteran. Nakajima went back to Japan for another year, signed a two-year deal with the Athletics the following offseason, and never got out of Triple-A. He hit .290/.346/.439 for the Orix Buffaloes in 2016.

January 5th, 2012: Quick Hits: Manny, Braves, Oliver, Tejada

The Yankees never inquired on lefty reliever Darren Oliver before he signed with the Blue Jays, reports MLBTR’s Ben Nicholson-Smith (on Twitter).

Oliver was 41 at the time of this rumor and he had carved out a very nice second phase of his career as a reliever. From 2008-11, his age 37-40 seasons, Oliver had a 2.62 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 242 appearances and 257.2 innings. The Yankees needed a lefty reliever and Oliver had been as good as anyone the last few seasons, but still, the guy was 41, and his strikeout rate dropped from 26.6% in 2010 to 20.5% in 2011. There were some other red flags too. The Blue Jays gave Oliver a one-year deal worth $4M and he went out and threw 56.2 innings with a 2.06 ERA (2.95 FIP) and a 23.5% strikeout rate in 2012. Go figure. Old players: not always bad!

January 7th, 2012: Jorge Posada To Announce Retirement

Jorge Posada will announce his retirement within the next two weeks, a source tells Sweeny Murti of WFAN (via Twitter).  Previously, it was reported that Posada wanted to continue playing in 2012 if he could find the right situation.

Aw man. On one hand, it was sad to see Posada retire. He’s one of my all-time favorite players. Switch-hitting catchers with power are my jam. On the other hand, it was also something of a relief to hear Posada was calling it a career. He was pretty bad in 2011 (92 wRC+) and the Yankees were ready to hand the DH reins over to Jesus Montero, so there was no room for Posada on the roster. It would have been weird seeing him finish out his career as a DH with the Rays or something like that. Here’s his retirement press conference:

As of this writing, Posada has appeared on only 4.5% of the publicly available Hall of Fame ballots according to Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker. He’s already been mathematically eliminated from receiving the 75% needed for induction into Cooperstown, so Posada won’t get into the Hall of Fame this year, not that I expected it to happen. Jorge does need some help — 15 more votes, to be precise — to receive the 5% necessary to remain on the ballot another year. Man, Posada falling off the ballot after one year would be a serious bummer.

January 7th, 2012: Yankees Notes: Posada, Rivera, Nakajima, Chavez

Speaking of members of the Core Four, closer Mariano Rivera has said he might know by Spring Training whether he intends to keep pitching when his contract expires after this year, but won’t say which way he’s leaning, writes Marc Carig of The Star-Ledger.  The 42-year-old posted a 1.91 ERA with 8.8 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9 last season.

Rivera later admitted he was planning to retire following the 2012 season, but he decided to stick around another year after tearing his ACL in May and missing the rest of the season. Mo could probably show up to Spring Training this year, throw ten tune-up innings, then give the Yankees about 60 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA, right? He was a machine. Rivera could roll out of bed in December and paint the corners.

January 11th, 2012: Minor Moves: Powell, Mattingly, Hu, Phillips, Herrera

The Yankees signed Preston Mattingly to a minor league deal, tweets Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. The 24-year-old former first rounder posted a .232/.281/.354 line in the lower minors last year. He is the son of current Dodgers manager and former Yankees star Don Mattingly. 

Geez, I forgot the Yankees signed Mattingly’s kid. Preston never did actually play in the organization. The Yankees released him at the end of Spring Training and he’s been out of baseball since. The Dodgers drafted Mattingly with the 31st overall pick in the 2006 draft and he hit .232/.276/.336 (69 wRC+) in over 1,700 minor league plate appearances. Never made it out of Single-A. Preston went to college after his baseball career ended and played on the Lamar University basketball team.

January 13th, 2012: Stark On Yankees, Red Sox, Reds, Garza

The Yankees won’t be under the luxury tax threshold in 2012 or 2013, but they hope to spend less than $189MM in 2014, Stark writes. However, the CBA isn’t the only reason the Yankees are spending more cautiously. “I think this is what the Yankees were going to do, regardless,” one of Stark’s sources said.

Five years later, the Yankees are still trying to get under the luxury tax threshold, and they won’t be able to do it until at least 2018. This was the first report of the austerity plan. The first time we got wind of Hal Steinbrenner’s plan to cut payroll and throw away the team’s market advantage. Nowadays the Collective Bargaining Agreement ensures the Yankees or any other big market team has no way to flex their financial muscle without being taxed or penalized heavily. Parity: it’s just a fancy word for widespread mediocrity.

January 13th, 2012: Mariners, Yankees Swap Pineda For Montero

The Mariners needed hitting, the Yankees needed pitching.  The two teams addressed each other’s needs in a blockbuster trade of young stars, as right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos will go to the Bronx in exchange for catcher/DH Jesus Montero and righty Hector Noesi.  Both teams confirmed the trade this afternoon.

January 13th, 2012: Yankees Sign Hiroki Kuroda

The Yankees have signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year contract, the team announced.  Jack Curry of the YES Network first reported the agreement (Twitter link).  The deal will pay Kuroda $10MM, tweets ESPN’s Buster Olney.  Kuroda is represented by the Octagon agency.

I’m going to lump these two moves together because they kinda felt like one big move. The time stamps of the RAB posts (Pineda trade, Kuroda signing) tell me the deals happened 54 minutes apart. The dust hadn’t come close to settling following the Pineda trade when news of the Kuroda signing broke. What a day that was, huh?

The Pineda trade was a classic out-of-nowhere Brian Cashman move. There was talk Montero could be traded for a pitcher all winter and pretty much no one wanted that to happen. He came up in September 2011 and raked, and everyone was looking forward to seeing him as the full-time DH in 2012. Montero’s name was certainly out there as a trade candidate though.

Pineda? There were no rumors about him, and certainly nothing connecting him to the Yankees. Pineda had just wrapped up an excellent rookie season and it seemed like the Mariners were ready to pair him with Felix Hernandez for the next half-decade. Instead, they cashed him in as a trade chip to get the big middle of the order bat they’d been lacking for years. That was the thinking behind the trade, anyway.

As for Kuroda, the Yankees had been linked to him for weeks, dating back to the 2011 trade deadline. I wanted the Yankees to sign him so bad. So, so bad. Kuroda was not the kinda guy to chase top dollar though. He wanted the best fit for his family and a chance to win, which is why he insisted on no-trade clauses wherever he played. The Yankees convinced him to come to New York and he was a damn good Yankee.

Both these deals were reported on January 13th, but it wasn’t until January 23rd than the Pineda trade became official and January 26th that the Kuroda trade was official. If I’m remembering correctly, the Pineda trade was held up because Montero had some visa issues and wasn’t able to get to Seattle to take his physical right away. Kuroda was home in Japan at the time and in no real rush to fly all the way to New York for his physical.

But man, was that a wild day or what? There was a lot of angst about the pitching staff that offseason. The Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee the previous year and made it through the 2011 season thanks to Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. We were all anticipating a rotation overhaul during the 2011-12 offseason and it just wasn’t happening, then BAM, Pineda and Kuroda were Yankees in the span of 54 minutes. What a time to be alive.

January 13th, 2012: Yankees Looking For Hitting, Carlos Pena On “Radar”

Now that the Yankees have addressed their pitching issues with two major transactions, the club is looking to add some offense, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.comCarlos Pena is “now on their radar,” and Heyman says the Bronx Bombers could be looking at other hitters as well.

With Montero gone and Posada retired, the Yankees suddenly had an opening at DH, and my goodness, they were connected to pretty much every veteran bat in the final few weeks of the 2011-12 offseason. The Yankees liked Pena for a long time — he spent time with Triple-A Columbus in 2006 and they claimed him on trade waivers in August 2011 — and always seemed to be linked to him, but it never did come together. He wound up back with the Rays in 2012 and hit .197/.330/.354 (98 wRC+) with 19 homers in exactly 600 plate appearances. Bullet dodged, I’d say.

January 13th, 2012: Analysis And Background Of The Montero/Pineda Deal

The Yankees initially tried to acquire Felix Hernandez from the Mariners, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (via Twitter) and were willing to offer a package that included Montero, Betances, Banuelos and more.

“If they were going to trade Montero, why didn’t they ask for Felix instead of Pineda???” was a fairly common RAB comment back in January 2012. As if the Yankees didn’t try that. Hernandez was coming off his worst season in several years at time — “worst season” is a relative term here because Felix was still awesome in 2011 — but he was signed for another three years and he was still only 25. Crazy. Hernandez was the face of the franchise and the Mariners weren’t going to give him up. The Yankees asked, Seattle said no, so they moved on to the next best thing.

January 15th, 2012: AL East Notes: Yankees, Pineda, Red Sox, Rays

GM Brian Cashman tells Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM that the Yankees will have made a mistake if Pineda never develops into a #1 starter (Twitter link).

Well, Pineda hasn’t develop into a No. 1 starter, but it’s still hard to consider the trade a mistake given what we know now. Montero was a total bust for the Mariners and it sure seems like the Yankees sold as high as possible. Sure, there was an opportunity cost to trading Montero — who else could they have gotten for him besides Pineda? — but we’ll never know what other deals were out there. Neither the Yankees nor the Mariners got what they wanted out of that trade. Seattle ended up way worse off though.

January 15th, 2012: Yankees Have Spoken To Johnny Damon

With Jesus Montero headed to the Mariners, the Yankees have spoken to Johnny Damon about the possibility of returning to New York as a DH according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (all Twitter links). He says they don’t have much money left to spend on a hitter, adding that there’s a “very small chance” they would consider Jorge Posada since he has yet to make his retirement official.

Like I said, the Yankees talked to every available veteran bat following the Montero trade. Damon was 38 at the time and coming off a good season with the Rays, during which he hit .261/.326/.418 (108 wRC+) with 16 homers in 647 plate appearances as their full-time DH. Talks with the Yankees about a reunion never got off the ground though. Damon ended up signing with the Indians in mid-April and hit .222/.281/.329 (70 wRC++) with four homers in 224 plate appearances before being released in August. He hasn’t played since. Another bullet dodged.

January 16th, 2012: Yankees, Hideki Matsui Have Been In Contact

There has been some contact between Hideki Matsui and the Yankees this offseason, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com tweets. The Yankees, who have also been in touch with Johnny Damon, appear to have just $1-2MM to spend on a DH. That would likely be enough to sign the 37-year-old Matsui, who’s coming off a disappointing season in Oakland.  

Another veteran bat, another old friend. Matsui was 37 at the time and he authored a .251/.321/.375 (93 wRC+) batting line with 12 homers in 585 plate appearances for the Athletics in 2011. I have zero recollection of Matsui with Oakland, but it happened. Look:

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Friggin’ wild, man. As with Damon, reunion talks with Matsui never did advance — it didn’t go over too well when the Yankees passed on both — and he wound up with the Rays, where he hit .147/.214/.221 (20 wRC+) with two homers in 103 plate appearances before being released in August. He hasn’t played since. Yet another bullet dodged.

Bringing Damon or especially Matsui back sure would have been cool from a nostalgic point of view, but it was pretty clear neither had much to offer at that point of their careers. Both guys left town a hero rather than stick around long enough to see themselves become the villain.

January 16th, 2012: Quick Hits: Orioles, Cespedes, Dodgers

ESPN.com’s Buster Olney suggests the Yankees could use their DH spot to see what Jorge Vazquez can do at the big league level or to give Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter partial days off (all Twitter links). The 29-year-old Vazquez posted a .262/.314/.516 line with 32 homers at Triple-A in 2011.

Jorge Vazquez! Oh man, good times. Vazquez was a guy the Yankees plucked out of Mexico in December 2008, and he put up some big numbers in the minors, including a .262/.314/.516 (121 wRC+) batting line with 32 homers in 500 plate appearances with Triple-A Scranton in 2011. I remember the man they call El Chato hitting a home run clear over the batter’s eye in dead center field in Spring Training 2011.

Of course, Vazquez was an older guy (29 at the time of this rumor) with zero defensive value and no plan at the plate whatsoever. Everyone oohed and aahed at the homers but ignored his 33.2% strikeout rate and 6.0% walk rate in 2011. The Yankees never seriously considered Vazquez for the DH position — how was he supposed to give A-Rod and Jeter partial days off anyway? — and in fact they released him following Spring Training 2012. Folks were Mad Online about that.

Vazquez is still active, you know. Or at least he was last season. He hit .319/.403/.513 (146 wRC+) with six homers in 139 plate appearances for a team in the Mexican League last summer. Vazquez has been playing in Mexico ever since being released by the Yankees. He hit a walk-off homer to win the Caribbean Series last February:

Vaya con Dios, El Chato.

January 17th, 2012: Quick Hits: White Sox, Guerrero, Gonzalez, Hart

The representatives for Vladimir Guerrero and Raul Ibanez contacted the Yankees about their DH opening, Newsday’s Ken Davidoff tweets.

Every agent with a veteran free agent bat called the Yankees after the Montero trade, it seems. The Yankees ended up signing Ibanez to replace Montero, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for Vlad, he actually never played again. He hit .290/.317/.416 (96 wRC+) with 13 homers in 590 plate appearances as a 36-year-old for the Orioles in 2011, and that was it. No one signed him following that season and his career ended. Guerrero is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. Bullet dodged? Hard to say since Vlad didn’t play in 2012. That no team bothered to sign him tells you he was considered a liability at this point of his career, not as asset.

January 18th, 2012: Gerardo Concepcion Close To Free Agency

18-year-old Cuban lefty Gerardo Concepcion has established residency in Mexico, agent Jaime Torres told Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com.  He should be able to declare free agency and negotiate with Major League teams very soon.  The Yankees, Rangers, Cubs, White Sox, and Phillies are among the interested clubs, Rojas tweets.

I totally forgot about this dude. Concepcion was the Next Big Thing out of Cuba and those stupid Yankees didn’t sign him because they never sign Cuban players. The Cubs gave him a five-year deal worth $7M, and he showed up to camp in 2012 with a mid-80s fastball and iffy secondary pitches. Concepcion had a 5.50 ERA (4.74 FIP) with 16.4% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 178.1 minor league innings from 2012-15. Egads.

Last year the now 24-year-old Concepcion found some success as a reliever, pitching to a 5.13 ERA (4.78 FIP) with 19.7% strikeouts and 10.6% walks in 59.2 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. He even made his MLB debut in June, allowing one run in 2.1 innings. The Cubs non-tendered him after the season and re-signed him to a minor league deal. Meh. Maybe Concepcion will figure it out as a reliever. Can’t say the Yankees missed out here.

January 20th, 2012: Stark On Tigers, Pineda, Dodgers, Rockies, Angels

There are also two “conspiracy theories” floating around regarding the deal.  One school of thought has people wondering if Pineda’s fading velocity down the stretch trigged the M’s to trade him.  There are also clubs wondering if the Yankees had concerns about Montero’s mental make-up.

The concerns about Montero’s makeup were nothing new. We’d heard about his #badattitude for years. Makeup and work ethic issues led to Montero’s failure as a baseball player as much as anything.

Pineda’s velocity drop at the end of the 2011 season was a big red flag and the reason many weren’t fond of the trade, especially since we were all still in “Montero is the next Miguel Cabrera!” mode at the time. Here is Pineda’s game-by-game velocity in 2011, via Brooks Baseball:

michael-pineda-velocity

That drop in his final start was the big concern, but Pineda’s velocity had been fading for weeks. He was over his previous career high in innings — he finished 2011 with 171 total innings, up from 139.1 the year before — and the Mariners did give him extra days off down the stretch in 2011.

The velocity loss could have been due to fatigue, or the irregular work. That was the hope. Then Pineda blew out his labrum in Spring Training 2012 and missed two full seasons. Womp effin’ womp.

January 26th, 2012: Yankees Designate Kevin Whelan For Assignment

The Yankees designated right-hander Kevin Whelan for assignment to create 40-man roster space for Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com tweets. The 28-year-old debuted with the Yankees in 2011, appearing in two games.

Geez, Whelan stuck around a long-time, huh? The Yankees got him in the Gary Sheffield trade with the Tigers following the 2006 season. He spent the next four and a half seasons toiling in the minors before making his MLB debut in June 2011, when he allowed one run in 1.2 innings. He walked five and struck out one. Whelan cleared waivers and spent the 2012 season in Triple-A Scranton before becoming a minor league free agent. He bounced from team to team for a few years and got back to the show briefly with the Tigers in 2014. He’s been out of baseball since 2015. Relief prospects, man. They’ll break your heart.

January 27th, 2012: Yankees Interested In Raul Ibanez

The Yankees have interest in Raul Ibanez, Kevin Kernan of the New York Post reports. Ibanez has drawn interest from a number of clubs, including the Mets and Tigers, in recent weeks. We heard ten days ago that ACES had contacted the Yankees about Ibanez, but this is the first concrete indication that the interest is mutual.

Ibanez was a less than inspiring choice for DH. He was 39 and had just hit .245/.289/.419 (90 wRC+) with 20 homers in 575 plate appearances for the Phillies. Add in his terrible defense and you had a -1.9 fWAR and -2.0 bWAR player. The Yankees eventually signed Ibanez and he looked washed up in Spring Training. It was bad. Fast forward six months, and the dude was a postseason hero. Something something can’t predict baseball.

January 30th, 2012: Yankees In Serious Talks With Bill Hall

The Yankees are in serious talks with utility man Bill Hall, tweets Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.  Rosenthal thinks Hall could reprise a 2010 Red Sox-type role, and notes that the 32-year-old works out in the offseason with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long.  No deal is imminent and Hall is still considering a couple of teams, tweets Andy Martino of the New York Daily News.

The Yankees were never not connected to Bill Hall. Everyone offseason they were trying to sign him and every trade deadline they were trying to acquire him. By this point Hall was well past his prime even though he was only 32. He hit .211/.261/.314 (57 wRC+) for the Astros and Giants in 2011, and no level of defense and versatility could make up for that. The Yankees did eventually sign Hall to a minor league deal, but he didn’t make it out of Spring Training. The last time he topped a 90 wRC+ was 2006.

January 30th, 2012: Minor Moves: Delcarmen, Tolbert, Gonzalez

The Yankees signed Manny Delcarmen to a minor league contract, Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweets. The right-hander, who last pitched in the Major Leagues in 2010, owns a 3.97 ERA with 7.7 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9 in 292 2/3 innings over the course of six MLB seasons.

Really thought Manny Delcarmen would be a successful closer for an NL team, you guys. Delcarmen, who was only 29 at the time, had a 4.74 ERA (5.04 FIP) from 2009-10 before spending 2011 in Triple-A with the Mariners and Rangers. The Yankees gave him that minor league contract and he spent the season with Triple-A Scranton, where he had a 4.42 ERA (4.23 FIP) in 57 innings. Delcarmen hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2010, though he did make two relief appearances in the Mexican League last summer, so he’s still giving it a go.

January 31st, 2012: Yankees Hire Jim Hendry

11:57am: The Yankees have hired former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assistant, ESPNChicago.com’s Bruce Levine reports. The Cubs dismissed Hendry in August, before hiring Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

The Cubs fired Hendry in late-July, but he agreed to stay on a few extra weeks to help the team sign their draft picks while the front office was in flux. Hendry had spent 17 seasons with the Cubs and was their GM from 2002-11, during which time he built some great teams (97 wins in 2008) and some terrible teams (66 wins in 2006). Tom Ricketts, who bought the Cubs in late-2009, decided it was time for a new voice. I’m guessing he doesn’t regret that decision.

Anyway, the Yankees hired Hendry as a special assistant and he’s still with the team as one of Cashman’s top lieutenants. He handled contract talks with Scott Boras about James Kaprielian two years ago. I’m sure he had a hand in the Starlin Castro trade as well. Hendry’s work as Cubs GM made him an easy punching bag, but he’s long had a reputation for being a great scout and talent evaluator. His current role suits him well. Hendry’s better off as an advisor than as the guy calling the shots.

Thoughts at the start of 2017

Hurry back, baseball. (Presswire)
Hurry back, baseball. (Presswire)

The holidays are over and it’s time to get back to reality. Sucks, doesn’t it? Spring Training is still six weeks away too. These are the dog days of the offseason. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things and stuff, so let’s get to them.

1. I thought it was pretty interesting Aroldis Chapman had a similar complaint about Cubs manager Joe Maddon as Adam Warren. (Billy Witz wrote a bit about this.) After the trade, Warren said he didn’t have a defined role in Chicago and never really knew when he would pitch. Chapman, during his conference call after signing with the Yankees, said he didn’t agree with the way Maddon used him, specifically when he brought him into the game in the middle innings. Relievers and players in general appreciate having a defined role. They’re creatures of habit and having a set role helps them develop a routine. At the same time, they’re professionals as well, so they have to perform when asked to do something out of the ordinary. (To be fair, both Warren and Chapman said it was ultimately on them to get the job done regardless of when they pitched.) Andrew Miller‘s willingness and ability to pitch whenever is pretty rare. He was really low maintenance. Joe Girardi is pretty rigid with his reliever usage. He assigns players innings and that’s that. Maddon tends to be a bit more fluid with his reliever usage and that’s not for everyone.

2. Speaking of Girardi, both he and Brian Cashman are entering the final year of their contracts. There have been no extension talks as far as we know and that’s not unusual. In the past, both Girardi and Cashman had to wait until their current deals expired before negotiating a new one, and I assume the same is true this time as well. A lot can change over the next ten months, we all know that, but right now, I think Cashman’s job is safe. Ownership is going to let him see the rebuild transition through after letting him make all those trades at the deadline last summer. As for Girardi, my guess right now is he will be back after the season because Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner love him, but I also think his job is less secure now than it has been at any point in the past. Missing the postseason again this year would be three postseason-less years in the last four seasons, and the one time they did make the playoffs, it was a wholly unsatisfying Wildcard Game shutout loss. How many managers survive a four-year stretch like that, rebuild or not?

3. I’m pretty amazed the Yankees have opted to keep Richard Bleier on the 40-man roster this winter over younger players like Nick Goody and Jacob Lindgren. The Yankees definitely seem to like Bleier more than I realized. He did a nice job in limited action last year, pitching to a 1.96 ERA (2.67 FIP) in 23 relief innings, but he was a 29-year-old rookie who had a combined 11.4% strikeout rate between Triple-A and MLB. That’s not an anomaly either. Bleier has a career 13.0% strikeout rate in over 900 career minor league innings. That’s who he is. He makes up for it with ground balls (54.1%) and by limiting walks (4.5% between Triple-A and MLB), but still, Bleier doesn’t have a huge margin for error. He seems like someone the Yankees might have been able to non-tender and re-sign to a minor league contract. This isn’t a big deal. We’re talking about a guy near the bottom of the 40-man roster. I just figured Bleier would be among the first to go when 40-man space was needed this winter. Instead, he’s still hanging around. Go figure.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

4. Where does Rob Refsnyder fit going forward? He did an okay job as a platoon bat against lefties last season (.274/.370/.355/94 wRC+) despite his complete lack of power, and that seems to be his best role going forward, part-time player against lefties. Starlin Castro is locked in at second base, and the Yankees would surely like Greg Bird and Aaron Judge to emerge as the first baseman and right fielder of the future, respectively, this coming season. That means more bouncing from position to position as a platoon bat for Refsnyder, I suppose. He still has an option left for 2017, so the Yankees can send him up and down as necessary. I’m just not sure how Refsnyder fits into the long-term picture, if at all. It would help if he could hit for some power — he’s never had much pop, even in the minors — or play good defense. He’s the quintessential ‘tweener. Someone who is nice to have while he’s cheap and optionable and that’s about it.

5. As I read this Craig Edwards post on next winter’s free agent class, I couldn’t help but to be glad the Yankees have so many quality shortstops in their farm system. This free agent class was loaded with first base and corner outfield bats, and next offseason’s will be more of the same. If you need a non-first base infielder, you’re in trouble. Shortstops tend to be the best athletes on the field and therefore most capable to change positions, if necessary. Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo are already working out in the outfield. Gleyber Torres has spent time at second base and I wouldn’t be surprised if third base is in his future too. Didi Gregorius and Castro won’t make anyone forget peak Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, but they’re a solid young middle infield combo, so the Yankees won’t have to rely on free agency to fill those positions. They also have all that shortstop depth in the minors, which they could use to fill other positions either via position changes or trades. Corner bats? There are plenty of those dudes available.