The End of the Summer of Al [2016 Season Review]

Now that the 2016 season is complete and the dust has settled, it’s time to begin our annual season review series. This year was a complicated one. That’s for sure.


A year ago at this time, Alex Rodriguez had just wrapped up a memorable comeback season, one that earned him an MVP vote (!) and an unquestioned place in the middle of the 2016 lineup. Thirty-three homers and a 130 wRC+ will do that. No, he couldn’t play the field anymore, but A-Rod could still hit, and that was awfully cool. At least for those of us who remain unabashed fans of dingers and fun.

Fast forward to today, and the Alex Rodriguez era in New York is over. He didn’t even make it through the 2016 season. Skills can erode quickly in this game, even with all-time greats like A-Rod. I still remember the day the Yankees acquired Rodriguez in that trade with the Rangers. It’s one of my most vivid memories as a baseball fan. Hard to believe it’s all over now, isn’t it?

An April to Forget

For a veteran player like A-Rod, Spring Training performance is pretty meaningless. Guys like him know exactly what they have to do to prepare for the regular season. They use their spring at-bats to work on things — track the ball, go the other way, whatever — because they know their spot in the lineup is secure. Alex hit .245/.302/.306 with one home run in 18 Grapefruit League games and I don’t think anyone blinked an eye.

Once the regular season started, it took A-Rod more than a month to get off the interstate. He went 12-for-65 (.185) with 19 strikeouts in his first 18 games, though the four home runs were nice. Rodriguez did start to show some signs of life three weeks into the regular season, when he went 6-for-14 (.429) with three home runs in a four-game span at the end of April. See? Everything was fine. Just a slow start for the veteran.

That little hot streak came to an abrupt end on May 3rd, when Alex pulled his hamstring running out a ground ball. That sent him to the disabled list for a little more than three weeks and opened up the DH spot for Carlos Beltran.

At the time of the injury, A-Rod as hitting .194/.275/.444 (90 wRC+) with five home runs in 80 plate appearances. The Yankees were 8-16 at the time because they were completely unable to generate any consistent offense. Rodriguez, who had spent most of the season hitting in the middle of the order up to that point, was a big part of the problem.

The Beginning of the End

Alex returned from his hamstring injury on May 26th and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. There were a lot of hitless games after that. In fact, Rodriguez went 1-for-16 (.063) with nine strikeouts in his first four games back from the injury. It was bad. Bad bad bad. Average fastballs were chewing him up, and because he had to start his bat early to handle good velocity, breaking balls were fooling him consistently. Yuck.

Joe Girardi, who has always been patient with his veterans, kept running A-Rod out there. An early-June hot streak (12-for-34, .353) didn’t last very long; Alex closed the month in a 9-for-40 (.225) rut. Come the end of June, with his batting line sitting at .219/.257/.382 (66 wRC+), Rodriguez’s lack of production became too much to bear. He sat three straight games from July 1-3 because the Yankees were in San Diego, and when they returned to AL parks, A-Rod remained on the bench.

Including that series against the Padres, A-Rod started only one of the team’s final ten games of the first half. Beltran was getting regular DH at-bats with Aaron Hicks and Rob Refsnyder splitting time in right field. They gave the Yankees a better chance to win at that point. We all came into the season hoping Alex would again be a middle of the force. Instead, he was a liability.

The End of the Road

To Girardi’s credit, he gave A-Rod one last chance to show he belonged in the lineup. Rodriguez started seven of the first eight games after the All-Star break, and in those seven games he went 2-for-23 (.087). So much for that. Those seven games were Alex’s last hurrah. His last attempt at a hurrah, really. He started only one of the next 17 games. One of the next 17! The Yankees were playing with a 24-man roster, essentially.

Beltran was traded at the deadline, and rather than put A-Rod back into the lineup at DH, the Yankees called up Gary Sanchez and gave him Beltran’s at-bats. The Yankees were pretty much out of the race at this point, and I figured they would suck it up and bench Alex until rosters expanded on September 1st, when it would be easier to carry the dead roster spot. They could then reevaluate things in the offseason.

The Yankees did not do that. Instead, they called a press conference on September 7th. That could only mean one thing: A-Rod’s career was coming to an end. Was he retiring? Did the Yankees release him? Was he getting suspended again? The mechanics were unclear. But it was over. We all knew it. That Sunday morning, A-Rod and the Yankees announced he would be released the following Friday, after one last game at home.

“I’m at peace with the organization’s decision,” said A-Rod, making it clear this was not his call. To the team’s credit, they handled this as graciously as possible. The Yankees could have simply released Alex and been done with him. Instead, they gave him that final home game and a chance to say goodbye to the fans. And vice versa. Lots of people still love A-Rod.

The farewell tour was short and not sweet. Girardi kept Rodriguez on the bench following his retirement press conference. He did play one final road game, fittingly at Fenway Park, where he played his first career game. Many fans, myself included, were pretty bummed A-Rod was not playing that final week. The Yankees weren’t going anywhere at the time and these were our last days with Alex. We wanted to see him play! Alas.

Goodbye, Al

August 12th. The date of A-Rod’s final game with the Yankees. He was in the lineup, batting third as the DH. The Yankees were playing the Rays, the same team they played in A-Rod’s first game in pinstripes. The night started with a pregame ceremony that was so perfectly awkward. It literally rained on A-Rod’s parade.

Amazing. Only A-Rod. The Bleacher Creatures gave Alex an extra long (and extra loud) Roll Call in the first inning, and several Yankees wore high socks to honor Rodriguez, including Chase Headley, the guy who replaced A-Rod at third base two years ago. Yankee Stadium was never louder this season than it was that night.

Given his recent lack of production, there was a chance Rodriguez’s final game would be ugly, especially against a strikeout pitcher like Chris Archer. Alex instead went out with a bang, lining a run-scoring double into the right-center field gap to give the Yankees their first run of the night.

The double was the final hit of A-Rod’s career. He grounded out, struck out, and grounded out in his next three at-bats to close out the game. Alex went 1-for-4 with a double against the (Devil) Rays in his first game with the Yankees and 1-for-4 with a double against the Rays in his last game with the Yankees. Baseball.

With the Yankees staked to a three-run lead, Girardi gave A-Rod one last goodbye moment by sending him out to play third base in the ninth inning. The Yankees Stadium crowd went wild.

It had been 447 days since Rodriguez last played the field. At one point he was one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, and early in his time with the Yankees he was one of the better fielding third basemen as well. Now, at age 41, he was playing one last inning at third base. It wasn’t even a full inning. A-Rod came out of the game after one out. It was his idea.

“I’m very grateful that Joe gave me the opportunity to play third for one out. I was actually excited,” he said after the game. “I was also stressed because once Joe made me the full-time DH, I retired my cup. So then I was very stressed. I screamed to [Dellin Betances] — the same thing Cal Ripken screamed to Roger Clemens in the All-Star Game in 2001, when we switched, he said, ‘Strike him out Roger’ — and I said exactly the same thing.”

Following the final out, A-Rod went back out onto the field to wave goodbye to the fans one last time. He walked over to third base, scooped up some dirt, stuffed it in his pocket, then descended into the clubhouse. His playing career was over, four home runs shy of becoming the fourth player in history with 700 home runs.

“It’s going to be tough to top that. That’s a memory that I will own forever,” said A-Rod after the game. “With all the things that I’ve been through, and to have an ending like tonight, I don’t know what else a man can ask for. I’m extremely thankful for everything the Steinbrenners — and especially the fans — did for me tonight.”

Outlook for 2017

As planned, A-Rod was released the following day — that opened a roster spot for Aaron Judge — and he finished the season with a .200/.247/.351 (56 wRC+) batting line and nine home runs in 243 plate appearances. The Yankees still owe him the balance of his contract, so they’re keeping him aboard as a special advisor. He’ll primarily work with prospects in the minors, and Alex has already spent time in Instructional League working with players.

Despite being a special advisor, Rodriguez is free to sign with another team, though he did seem to close the door on that following his final game. Also, teams aren’t exactly interested in a 41-year-old DH who can’t hit anymore. Maybe someone will sign him. I seriously doubt it. For now, A-Rod is going to his analyst work on FOX — he’s awesome, by the way — and continue working with the team’s prospects. Love him or hate him, the Yankees were never boring during A-Rod’s time in pinstripes. This truly is the end of an era.

Mailbag: White Sox, Moss, Valbuena, Kennedy, Hernandez

We’ve got 15 questions in the mailbag this week. Remember to use the RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com email address to send us anything throughout the week. Questions, comments, links, whatever.

No bats, only rebar. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
No bats, only rebar. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Chris asks: Do you think the White Sox could be a potential landing spot if the Yankees want to trade McCann? Obviously, McCann would need to waive his no-trade clause. The White Sox seem intent on competing and really need a catcher.

Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. Chicago’s catching depth chart is capital-U Ugly. Look at this, from the team’s official site:

White Sox catchers

Alex Avila signed a one-year deal last offseason and will become a free agent after the World Series. Omar Narvaez hit .239/.291/.314 (74 wRC+) between Double-A and Triple-A and isn’t ranked among the team’s top 30 prospects according to Kevan Smith is a 28-year-old rookie who hit .219/.291/.399 (98 wRC+) while repeating Triple-A this season. So yeah, the ChiSox need catching.

Brian McCann would certainly fit with the White Sox given their roster and needs. Would he accept a trade to Chicago? Who knows. McCann might not even know right now. The bigger question is what can the ChiSox send to New York? McCann for David Robertson crossed my mind, but I think you need more back. I’ve said this before, but I wouldn’t trade McCann for the sake of trading him. Having two starting caliber catchers is quite a luxury.

If the White Sox want McCann, I’d focus on Carlos Rodon. The Yankees can (and would have to) add pieces to make it work, but that’s the guy I’d focus on. A young lefty starter with five years of team control and upside. McCann would be massive upgrade behind the plate for the ChiSox and he’d bridge the gap nicely to Zack Collins, a catcher and their first round pick this year. Outside Rodon, I’m really not sure what else Chicago has to offer. I’m not trading McCann for two or three Grade-B prospects.

Paul asks (short version): Cashman said: “Ultimately, we know when the dust settled, when it’s all said and done, the 2016 season did not achieve the stated goal, which was the first get to the playoffs and try to compete for a championship in October.” Am I reading too much into him saying the objective is playoffs first, then -compete- for a championship?

Yes, you’re reading too much into it. Based on Brian Cashman‘s tone during his press conference, it was clear winning the World Series is the priority, and getting to the postseason is step one. Both Cashman and Joe Girardi were asked whether the “World Series or bust” mentality has to change as the Yankees go through this rebuild transition, and both emphatically said no. While I understand the merits of a full blown Astros style tear down, I do appreciate the Yankees refusing to be an abject embarrassment on the field. This past season was their worst in a long time, and they still won 84 games. We’re spoiled.

P.J. asks: With basically all of the “expensive” contracts off the books after the 2017 season. What are the chances that the Yankees might be willing to eat a portion of what’s remaining on Ellsbury’s deal $65MM+/- to move him?

I don’t know what the chances are, but I do think the Yankees would be more receptive to eating money to move Jacoby Ellsbury once they shed some more payroll. Mark Teixeira is gone this year, and next year CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez‘s contract will be gone too. Maybe Masahiro Tanaka as well. With all that money going away, eating say $10M to $15M a year to move Ellsbury may be more palatable. There will only be three years left on his contract after next season too, so they might not have to eat $65M. It might only be $30M.

Michael asks: If Gardner gets traded this off season, who do you think starts in left to start 2017?

My guess is the Yankees would go with Aaron Hicks and Mason Williams in some sort of timeshare, with Rob Refsnyder and Tyler Austin getting a look out there in Spring Training for show. Clint Frazier is the obvious long-term solution out there, though eventually Ellsbury is going to have to move to left — a move is inevitable, center field is a young man’s position, not somewhere you stick a guy in his mid-30s — so it’s possible Frazier could end up in center long-term with Ellsbury in left. Frazier has the speed for center. To start next year though, Hicks and Williams with a little Austin and Refsnyder mixed in is my bet.

Dan asks: If the Yanks trade away a veteran bat, what do you think of them going after Moss or Valbuena? Both have lefty pop and position versatility. They shouldn’t cost that much, and probably won’t have have a QO attached.

Either guy could work. Both can play first base, but Luis Valbuena has the advantage of being able to play third base. Poorly, but he can play it. Brandon Moss can play the corner outfield spots, and while that’s not nothing, the Yankees are pretty well covered there. Here are their 2016 numbers:

Valbuena: .260/.357/.459 (123 wRC+) with 13 homers, 12.9% walks, 23.7% strikeouts
Moss: .225/.300/.484 (105 wRC+) with 28 homers, 8.4% walks, 30.4% strikeouts

Valbuena only played 90 games this season because of a hamstring injury, otherwise he would have cleared 20 homers rather easily. He doesn’t have Moss’ power, but he’s a better all-around hitter because he makes more contact and draws more walks. Valbuena’s on-base ability would be a welcome addition to a lineup that needs more OBP.

Part of me thinks the Astros will slap the qualifying offer on Valbuena. The crop of free agent third basemen is so bad — it’s basically Justin Turner and that’s it — that there could be quite a bit of competition for Valbuena. He’d give the Yankees protection at the corner infield spots and another DH option. Could be a nice fit. I really have no idea what it’ll cost to get him though. Chances are more than you think. That’s a good rule of thumb these days.

Valbuena. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Valbuena. (Bob Levey/Getty)

Pounder asks: Ian Kennedy. I know his contract is a financial mine field, should we consider trading for him?

Kennedy will turn 32 in December (we’re all old and going to die soon) and he had a nice year with the Royals, pitching to 3.68 ERA (4.67 FIP) in 195.2 innings. He’s owed $62.5M through 2020 and he can opt-out next offseason. Doing so would leave three years and $49M on the table. I think you have to assume he won’t opt-out right now. You have to plan for that money to be on the books.

Anyway, I’m going to say no to Kennedy because he’s such an extreme fly ball pitcher. He had a 33.2% ground ball rate this season and his career rate is 37.4% in over 1,400 innings. This is who he is. The Yankees have a chance to field a pretty good defensive outfield next season, but the big concern is home runs. Kennedy had a 1.52 HR/9 this past season. It was 1.66 HR/9 the year before. Only once in the last five years has he had a sub-1.20 HR/9. Put him in Yankee Stadium and it could get ugly. I don’t see Kennedy as a fit because his fly ball tendencies and the ballpark don’t mix.

Doug asks: Tyler Austin.What do you see for his Yankee future? After his walk-off I think he struck out 10-11 times in a row? I saw him getting pull happy and he didn’t touch a ball. He missed everything by 4-10 inches while trying for left field. Joe sat him for two weeks and he came back with his opposite field stroke!

Last year at this time Austin was a non-factor. Now he at least has a chance to be part of the Yankees going forward. I think we learned two things about Austin during his relatively short big league time: his opposite field power is very real, and he should be limited to first base defensively. You can run him out there in right field if necessary, but he’s not an everyday option out there. He looked rather Trumbo-esque in right.

I see Austin as a good role player, not a cornerstone piece. He complements Greg Bird well at first base and he could also get at-bats at DH. Play him at first base everyday and Austin will probably leave you wanting more. Play him, say, half the time or two-thirds of the time, and he could really help. I guess that makes him a Mark Reynolds type? Less power, fewer strikes, but same general role. It’ll be interesting to see how Austin and Bird co-exist at first base next season.

Dan asks: I was just reading the prospect page and noticed that Vicente Campos in No. 3 on their list (!!!). Is the Dbacks farm system really that bad or did we really overpay for Tyler Clippard?

No, their farm system is really that bad. Probably the worst system in baseball besides the Angels. I don’t remember where Campos ranked on the Yankees’ list before the trade, but it was in the 20s somewhere. That was before the trade deadline moves beefed up the farm system too. Campos got called up in September and threw a handful of innings for the Diamondbacks before suffering a fracture in his elbow. He needed surgery and will miss eight months. Brutal. Poor guy has really good stuff, but he can’t stay on the field. At least he’s on the Major League disabled list and will pick up service time and big league salary while rehabbing next year.

Frank asks: How much say do the Yankees have in how much their players play in AZ? One would think they’d want Bird to play everyday to get AB’s. And is Tebow stealing AB’s something other teams would get upset about – or are they just happy ESPN is covering the team because he is playing?

Total control, essentially. Each Arizona Fall League team includes prospects from five MLB organizations, and those organizations get together ahead of time and pick positions. They negotiate the roster spots and then pick players accordingly. The Mets had a starting outfield spot and used it on Tim Tebow. He’s not taking at-bats away from players in other organizations. I’m sure the Yankees lobbied hard for a first base/DH spot for Greg Bird’s rehab. It’s not like the Yankees sent Gleyber Torres to the AzFL and hope he’ll get time at second base. They already knew that spot is open when they picked him for the roster.

Tom asks: What do you think about trading Headley, moving Castro to third, and signing Utley?

Eh. Two or three years ago I was in favor of acquiring Chase Utley, when the Yankees were cycling through guys like Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew. Utley will be 38 in December and while he still plays super hard and gives a quality at-bat, he basically stopped hitting in May. I’m talking .236/.292/.381 (83 wRC+) after June 1st. Can’t hit lefties either (27 wRC+). Chase Headley is a better player at this point. I’d sign Utley as an emergency stopgap only. I wouldn’t trade Headley to make room for him.

Hernandez. (Justin Berl/Getty)
Hernandez. (Justin Berl/Getty)

Torrey asks: I saw an article recently about how Cesar Hernandez is the type of young, improving player the Yankees should target. He doesn’t hit for much power but he has good contact skills, gets on base, has speed and seems like a good number 2 hitter. Would be fit with the Yanks? If so, what do you think it would take to acquire him?

Hernandez is a nice little player and one of the league’s best kept secrets. The 26-year-old switch-hitter put up .294/.371/.393 (108 wRC+) batting line with lots of walks (10.6%) and not an excessive amount of strikeouts (18.6%) in 2016. Add in quality second base defense and the guy was a +3 WAR player in 2016. (+4 WAR per FanGraphs.) He’s not going to hit for power. That’s the biggest knock against him.

The Yankees could put Hernandez at second — he has shortstop skills but lacks the arm for the left side of the infield — and slide Starlin Castro to third, where I think he’d do well. That’d allow them to flip Headley elsewhere. I’m not sure what the Phillies would want for Hernandez, but he’d give the Yankees some much-needed on-base ability in addition to improved up-the-middle defense. I like the idea. I doubt the Phillies will give him away cheap though.

Mike asks: I have three Rule 5 questions: 1) If a team loses a player in the draft can that team withdraw their remaining eligible players from the draft? 2) And if the team cannot remove their eligible players but have lost a player in the draft can that team move a player from the eligible list to their 40 man roster, thus “saving” at least one player from the draft? 3) Can a team with a full 40 man roster draft a player in the Rule 5 pool if they lost a player in the draft and their roster is then at 39?

Consider this a quick Rule 5 Draft primer. Here are the answers to Mike’s questions:

  1. No. There’s no limit to how many players you can lose. The Yankees lost four players in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft, for example (Reegie Corona, Zach Kroenke, Jason Jones, Ivan Nova).
  2. No. If the player is not added to the 40-man roster by the deadline, usually November 20th, he’s eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. You can’t add him later.
  3. No. You can’t lose a player off your 40-man roster in the Rule 5 Draft. Only non-40-man players are eligible. If you have open 40-man spots, you can pick a player. If not, then you can’t.

Generally speaking, college players from the 2013 draft and high school/international kids signed in 2012 are Rule 5 Draft eligible this offseason. If those guys are not on the 40-man roster, they can be picked in the Rule 5 Draft. This is a way to give players an opportunity in the big leagues. The MLBPA doesn’t want teams to be able to stash guys in the minors forever.

John asks: The Giants. While their system is thin, could they have (reasonably) put together a MLB/MiLB package for Chapman or Miller that you would have preferred over the deals the Yankees did make?

Sure, if they were willing to trade Joe Panik or one of the Brandons (Crawford or Belt). That wasn’t going to happen, obviously. The Giants actually had five players on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects list, but all five were on the back half of the list. Give me quality over quantity. I’d rather get one top notch prospect like Frazier or Torres (plus stuff) than two second tier guys (plus stuff). Riskier? Sure. But the Yankees have prospect depth already. Give me the upside.

Travis asks: With the Giants losing because of the bullpen implosion and the fact they wouldnt part with Panik for Miller, I wonder if the Yankees could get the Giants to part with Panik plus others for Betances?

I assume the Giants are just going to throw money at their bullpen this offseason. Why trade Panik for Dellin Betances when you could sign Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon? San Francisco is a high payroll team — they’ve been top five or six in payroll for several years now — and they have a lot of money coming off the books this winter (Jake Peavy, Angel Pagan, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez). Spending big for a closer doesn’t figure to be an issue. There’s always room for another great reliever in the bullpen, but I’d be surprised if the Giants parted with Panik to make it happen. They’re smart. The ninth inning meltdown the other night won’t push the front office to make a knee-jerk move.

Bobby asks: I’m confused about what teams owe guys who are up for arbitration. If the Yankees cut Eovaldi, for example, are they on the hook for anything or because he hasn’t signed a free agent deal does he have nothing guaranteed to come his way?

They don’t owe him anything. Nathan Eovaldi, like most pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players, was on a one year contract that expires after the end of the World Series. The Yankees control his rights for next season, that’s why he won’t become a free agent, but they figure to non-tender him because he’s going to miss 2017. Players signed to multi-year contracts are owed the balance of their contracts if they’re released. Guys on one-year deals have nothing coming to them.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Good news: baseball is back. That one day without postseason games was pretty lame. Even better news: tonight is a winner-take-all Game Five between the Dodgers and Nationals (8pm ET on FOX Sports 1). Who doesn’t love an elimination game? Rich Hill (on three days’ rest) and Max Scherzer are the scheduled starters. Tonight’s game will determine who gets to lose to the Cubs in the NLCS.

Here is tonight’s open thread. In addition to Dodgers-Nats, there’s also the Thursday NFL game, plus the three local hockey teams all begin their seasons as well. Not sure I’m ready for Rangers-Islanders intensity right out of the gate. Could have used some warm up games against the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets first. Anyway, talk about whatever.

Update: Qualifying offer will be $17.2M this offseason

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

October 13th: The qualifying offer is $17.2M this offseason, according to Jon Heyman. That’s a bit higher than initially expected. It doesn’t change anything for the Yankees though. Teixeira is their only free agent eligible for the qualifying offer and he retired, so yeah.

July 28th: According to Buster Olney, the qualifying offer for the upcoming offseason is estimated at $16.7M. That’s up from $15.8M last season and $15.3M the offseason before. The QO is a one-year deal set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, and the deadline to make the offer is five days after the end of the World Series. Players then have seven days to accept or reject.

The Yankees only have one serious QO candidate: Carlos Beltran. He’s hitting .305/.347/.548 (134 wRC+) with 21 homers in 95 games this season, though his defense leaves much to be desired. I don’t think the Yankees should make Beltran the QO because he’ll probably accept it — who is giving a soon-to-be 40-year-old free agent $16.7M, even across two years? — and I don’t see that as a good thing for the reasons I outlined yesterday.

Mark Teixeira and Ivan Nova are New York’s only two other impending free agents, and based on what we heard earlier today, Nova will be traded prior to Monday’s deadline. Teixeira has been beyond awful this season, hitting .190/.270/.325 (59 wRC+) with nine homers in 71 games around a knee problem. A year ago at this time he looked like a QO candidate. Now? Now he can’t get off the team fast enough.

It’s also possible for CC Sabathia to become a free agent after the season, though that would require him to suffer a shoulder injury that would void his $25M vesting option for 2017. A healthy Sabathia is not a QO candidate at this point of his career. Sabathia with a shoulder injury? No chance. With Aroldis Chapman gone, Beltran is the Yankees’ only QO candidate. We’ll see what happens with him.

The QO offer entitles the team to a supplemental first round draft pick should the player reject the offer and sign elsewhere as a free agent. Signing a QO free agent means forfeiting your highest unprotected draft pick. It’s worth noting players who accept the QO can not be traded until June 1st of the following season, so if your plan is to make Beltran the offer and trade him if he accepts, it won’t fly. At least not immediately.

It’s worth noting the new upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement could change the QO system and I think that’ll happen, but chances are it’ll be minor tweaks rather than an overhaul. If MLB and the MLBPA reach an agreement before the end of the World Series, then the new system will presumably take effect. If not, the current QO system stays in place until the two sides announce any changes. The current CBA expires December 1st.

Sanchez and Judge rank among Baseball America’s top Triple-A prospects

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

Earlier today, Baseball America wrapped up their annual look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league with the Triple-A International League (subs. req’d). Three big leaguers claimed the top three spots: Nationals SS Trea Turner, Twins OF Byron Buxton, and Yankees C Gary Sanchez. Hooray for that. OF Aaron Judge placed 19th.

“Sanchez stood out for his plus raw power even before mashing 11 home runs for the Yankees in August. He offers more at the plate than just raw power, however. He can use the whole field to hit, and he cut his strikeout rate this year,” said the write-up. The scouting report also lauds his “top-of-the-scale arm strength” and improved receiving while noting there’s still work to do defensively. Pretty much exactly what we saw this year, right? Right.

As for Judge, the scouting report says he is “more than just a masher” at the plate because he has discipline and uses the whole field, but “his size makes his swing long, and more advanced pitchers have been able to exploit some of his holes.” He’s also said to be a prototypical right fielder defensively, with a strong arm and better athleticism and mobility than you’d expect given his 6-foot-7 frame.

I didn’t realize the International League was so deep this year. There are 19 legitimate top 100 prospects in the top 20. Guys like 2B Rob Refsnyder, 1B Tyler Austin, RHP Luis Cessa, and RHP Chad Green had no chance to make it. OF Clint Frazier certainly would have made the top 20 had he spent enough time in the league to qualify for the list. You can see the top 20s right here (no subs. req’d).

The Same Old Brett Gardner, Just With Less Power [2016 Season Review]

Now that the 2016 season is complete and the dust has settled, it’s time to begin our annual season review series. This year was a complicated one. That’s for sure.


This past summer the Yankees did something they hadn’t done in nearly three decades: they sold at the trade deadline. Truth be told, their efforts to sell veterans and restock the farm system began last offseason, when Andrew Miller and Brett Gardner were reportedly put on the trade block. The Yankees wanted young pitching in return and found no takers, so both players started the season with New York.

Unlike Miller, Gardner was not traded away at the deadline, though I’m sure the Yankees gauged his value. They did that with everyone. Gardner remained with the Yankees all season, first as their No. 2 hitter before moving to the leadoff spot. Not surprisingly, he led the team with 634 plate appearances. It’s been three years since someone not named Brett Gardner led the Yankees in plate appearances. He’s been a mainstay atop the lineup for quite a while now.

Same Ol’ Brett …

For all the talk about his streakiness and his second half slumps — he didn’t have one this year, by the way, his numbers before and after the All-Star break were nearly identical in 2016 — Gardner has been remarkably consistent the last four years. His numbers at the end of the year always finish in the same range. Check it out:

2013 609 .273 .344 8.5% 20.9%
2014 636 .256 .327 8.8% 21.1%
2015 656 .259 .343 10.4% 20.6%
2016 634 .261 .351 11.0% 16.7%

Gardner’s walk and strikeout rates this year were the best they’ve been since 2011, and that’s pretty cool. Otherwise that’s Brett Gardner. He’s going to give you an average around .260 and an on-base percentage around .340 year after year, like clockwork. Check out his monthly splits:

April: .254 AVG and .369 OBP
May: .184 AVG and .324 OBP
June: .323 AVG and .390 OBP
July: .269 AVG and .328 OBP
August: .262 AVG and .344 OBP
September: .269 AVG and .355 OBP

May and June kinda cancel each other out. The other four months are pretty much the same. Gardner is as predictable as they come. Predictable is boring. Predictable is comforting. The average leadoff man hit .273 with a .339 OBP this season. Gardner was right there, trading a few points of batting average for a few points of on-base percentage.

In addition to plate appearances, Gardner also led the Yankees in walks (70) and pitches seen per plate appearance (4.09) this season. Does he have a tendency to look at strike three? Sure. That tends to happen when you work deep counts like Gardner. When it comes to true leadoff man skills, meaning working the count and getting on base, no one on the Yankees is better than Gardner. He’s done a fine job setting the table for this team for several years now.

… Minus The Power

The single biggest difference between 2016 Gardner and the Gardner of previous years, particularly the 2014-15 versions, was his power production. No one thinks of him as a power hitter, but Brett did smack 17 home runs in 2014 and another 16 in 2015. This year he hit seven. And that’s with power up around the league and the baseballs possibly being juiced. On the bright side, one of those seven homers was a walk-off:

Gardner’s power outage was most evident during the summer months and later in the season. He hit two home runs after May 18th, in the team’s final 123 games of the season. Two! Gardner hit five homers in the first 39 games of the season and only two thereafter. Geez. It’s not too difficult to see why Gardner’s power disappeared this season:

Brett Gardner GB Pull rates

Gardner put the ball on the ground far more often this year (52.3%) than the last two years (43.2%), and he also didn’t pull the ball as often either (33.6% vs. 37.5%). If you’re a left-handed hitter playing in Yankee Stadium and you don’t pull the ball in the air, you’re not going to get any help from the right field short porch.

Contact quality was not the problem. Gardner’s hard (25.8%) and soft (16.9%) contact rates were right in line with what he did from 2014-15 (27.5% and 16.1%). The problem was launch angle, the new sabermetric hotness. Gardner didn’t get the ball airborne often enough in general, but especially to the pull side. That’s why his power dropped so much.

Here, let’s look at Gardner’s launch angle the last two years using one of the many cool features at Baseball Savant. We have two years worth of Statcast data now, so here are Gardner’s launch angles for 2015 and 2016. You can click the image for a larger view, and I recommend doing that.

Brett Gardner launch angle

That’s a pretty cool looking graphic, but what the hell does it mean? In the simplest terms, launch angle is the angle at which the ball leaves the bat. The ideal launch angle is 10-30 degrees. Exit velocity plays a role in this, but generally speaking, 10-25 degrees gives you a line drive to the outfield and 25-30 degrees is a possible dinger.

Last season Gardner spent much more time in that 10-30 degree range. In fact, we have exact numbers: Gardner hit 117 balls in the 10-30 degree range last year and 23 in the 25-30 range. This season it was 103 and 18, respectively. Gardner put 192 balls in play below the 10-degree launch angle last year compared to 220 this year, hence the increase is grounders.

I know this doesn’t seem like a huge difference. I mean, Gardner hit only 14 fewer balls in the 10-30 degree range this year than last year. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember, we’re talking about batted balls hit at the ideal angle here. A few of these can absolutely be the difference between, say, seven homers and 15 homers.

The question now is why? Why did Gardner hit so many more ground balls last season? We can’t answer that with any certainty. It could be the randomness of baseball. His bat could be slowing as he approaches his mid-30s. Maybe his swing was a mechanical mess. Maybe he was playing hurt. Who knows? There are countless possible reasons.

Whatever it is, Gardner’s inability to get the ball in the air this season, especially to his pull side, really dragged down his power numbers. He slugged .362 with a .101 ISO in 2016. It was .410 and .152, respectively, from 2014-15. That’s a huge drop. At this point expecting 15+ homers again is probably pushing it, but with balls flying out of the park nowadays, double-digit dingers doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

What About The Steals?


Gardner is, at the most basic level, a speed player. His legs got him to the big leagues, and while his power surge from 2014-15 made his valuable in a different way, Brett is still known for his speed. Not surprisingly though, his raw stolen base totals have fallen the last few years. That tends to happen once a guy gets over 30. Stolen base ability does not age gracefully. Here are some baserunning stats with some thoughts.

2013 24-8 14.3% 45% +3.8 +3.4
2014 21-5 10.4% 40% +5.6 +4.5
2015 20-5 8.7% 58% +5.5 +4.7
2016 16-4 6.6% 56% +7.3 +5.2

1. Gardner isn’t attempting to steal much these days. Obvious statement is obvious. Not only has Gardner’s stolen base total declined the last few years, his stolen base attempt rate (SBA%) has declined too. That’s the number of attempted steals divided by stolen base opportunities, meaning the times Gardner was on first or second base with no runner ahead of him. The league average is 5.5%, though for fast guys like Brett, you’d like to see it up around 10%.

“I can’t necessarily pinpoint what it is, but obviously I was a little less aggressive. You can’t steal 40-something bases if you don’t try to steal 40-something bases,” said Gardner in Spring Training about his decline in stolen bases. “It’s not like I’ve tried to go 50 times and only been successful half of them. My percentage has still been pretty high … I think for the most part I’ve done a good job of trying to do that and being smart about when we run but we’re always looking for ways to improve.”

My guess is Gardner’s decline in steal attempts is the result of a number of factors. Age, for one. I also think there’s a self-preservation angle to this too. Stealing bases are rough on the body and Gardner has been banged up the last few years. Is it a coincidence he had his best second half in years this season after stealing fewer bags in the first half? Maybe not! No one expects a 33-year-old player to steal 40+ bases. But Gardner dipped below 20 steals sooner than I think anyone expected.

Joe Girardi has said Gardner always has the green light and it’s up to him when to run. Given his decline in stolen base rate and the fact there were several instances throughout the season when it make sense to run — late in a close game, etc. — and Gardner didn’t, perhaps Girardi should be a little more proactive and tell Brett to go. He doesn’t have to steal every time he reaches first. That’s unrealistic. But a little more encouragement wouldn’t hurt.

2. Gardner is elite at the other aspects of baserunning. Stolen bases are just one piece of the baserunning pie. They’re the most obvious piece of the pie, really. There are other aspects of baserunning though, like going first-to-third on a single and advancing on balls in the dirt. That sort of stuff. The numbers show Gardner is among the best in baseball at the non-stolen base aspects of baserunning.

For example, Gardner took the extra base (XBT%) a whopping 56% of the time this year. That was top ten in MLB. The all-encompassing baserunning stats at FanGraphs (BSR) and Baseball Prospectus (BRR) rate Gardner as the seventh and 12th best baserunner in baseball in 2016, respectively. That’s out of the 971 position players to appear in a game this year. The stolen base numbers are slipping. No doubt about it. When it comes to total baserunning value, Gardner is one of the best in the game. Has been for a few years now.

The Still Great Defense

There’s not much to say about Gardner’s defense. He once again had a very good defensive season, according to both the eye test and the various metrics (+12 DRS and +3.6 UZR). Gardner made his fair share of eye-popping catches as well this year. Remember this one in Anaheim?

I wouldn’t blame you if you slept through that one. It was a late night game on the West Coast. What about this catch against the Blue Jays? I know you remember this one:

Brett Gardner: still very good at catching baseballs. Do we need to dig any deeper than that? Nah.

Outlook for 2017

This offseason, perhaps moreso than ever before, it feels like the chances of Gardner being traded are relatively high. The Yankees committed to the rebuild by trading veterans for prospects at the deadline, and they figure to continue that this winter. Also, they need to start making room for their young outfielders. Aaron Judge arrived in August, Aaron Hicks and Mason Williams need more at-bats, and Clint Frazier is in Triple-A with Dustin Fowler not too far behind.

There are two years and $24M left on Gardner’s contract, plus a $12.5M club option for 2019, which is a very affordable rate, even with this year’s power outage. Denard Span got $10M a year last offseason. Two years ago Melky Cabrera got $14M annually and Nick Markakis got $11M annually. Gardner at $12M a year for two years is a fair price, if not below market value given recent inflation. It’s certainly not an albatross preventing the Yankees from making other moves.

Ideally the Yankees would trade Jacoby Ellsbury and keep Gardner, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. Ellsbury’s contract is a major deal-breaker for most teams. If Gardner goes this offseason, he’ll leave as a very productive homegrown Yankee who never quite seemed to get the respect he deserved. The guy went from walk-on in college to World Series winner and All-Star with the Yankees. That’s pretty darn cool.

Heyman: Yanks planning to target a top free agent reliever

Jansen. (Jeff Gross/Getty)
Jansen. (Jeff Gross/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees are planning to target one of the top free agent relievers this upcoming offseason. That means either Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen, or possibly Mark Melancon. They’re the three big names out there this winter. Heyman says the Yankees also want to bolster their rotation, though that’s not a shock. That applies to every team ever.

Anyway, this doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, I said I expect the Yankees to pursue a top free agent reliever the day after the Chapman trade. The Yankees, like every other team, enjoy having multiple elite relievers in their bullpen. This offseason is an opportunity to add one (or two!) using nothing but cash, and the Yankees sure have a lot of that. In fact, I would be surprised if they don’t land a top reliever this winter. Here are some more thoughts on this.

1. The Yankees will have some money to spend. Let’s do some really quick and dirty math. The Yankees opened the season with a $226M payroll, or thereabouts. Carlos Beltran ($15M), Mark Teixeira ($22.5M), and Andrew Miller ($9M) will all be off the books next season. So will non-tender candidates Nathan Eovaldi ($5.6M) and Dustin Ackley ($3.2M). That’s a lot of big salaries going away.

That all adds up to $55.3M in savings, but, not counting Eovaldi and Ackley, the Yankees are facing roughly $12M in arbitration raises, so it’s really $43.3M in savings. That can buy you some great relievers, but we know the Yankees are going to want to get under the luxury tax threshold, whatever it may be. We’ll find out in a few weeks once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is finalized. Hopefully it’s north of $200M.

Assuming the new threshold is right around $200M, the Yankees will have about $18M to spend this offseason based on my back of the envelope math. That’s enough to give Chapman or Jansen the highest annual salary for a reliever in history, though there wouldn’t be much left over. For what it’s worth, Hal Steinbrenner recently told Joel Sherman he doesn’t anticipate getting under the luxury tax threshold until 2018. We’ll see.

2. Chapman and Melancon won’t cost a pick. Because they were traded at midseason, neither Chapman nor Melancon are eligible for the qualifying offer. They won’t cost anything other than a money. Jansen is going to get the qualifying offer, so teams will have to forfeit their first round pick to sign him. That assumes the new CBA doesn’t eliminate the qualifying offer system. I don’t think it will.

Chapman. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Chapman. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

In a vacuum, giving up a draft pick to sign Jansen isn’t a big deal. He’s an elite player and a stupid little draft pick shouldn’t stand in the way of acquiring a player of his caliber. He’s a difference maker. This isn’t a vacuum though. Chapman and Melancon are excellent pitchers themselves. Why give up the pick for Jansen when you can sign a comparable reliever and keep your first round pick? I can definitely see Chapman and Melancon generating a ton of interest early in the offseason as teams try to nab a top reliever and keep their top pick.

3. Signing a top reliever doesn’t fix everything. Adding a great reliever to the bullpen is always a good thing. There’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t benefit from signing one of these guys. The Yankees are not one reliever away though. Heck, just this season the Yankees had arguably the best 7-8-9 combination in the history of baseball, and it didn’t help them much because the offense stunk and the rotation was spotty.

The Yankees should sign one of those great free agent relievers because they have the money, they have the need, and because guys like that are unbelievably valuable in the postseason, which is where the Yankees ultimately want to go. They still need to address the offense and the rotation, however. And even the middle relief too. As long as signing a top reliever is just one move this offseason and not the move, the Yankees should be all-in on this free agent bullpen class.

4. Signing a free agent reliever doesn’t mean the trades were a mistake. With both Chapman and Miller helping their new teams to the League Championship Series, I’ve seen more than a few folks suggest trading one or both away was a mistake. No. Just, no. The Yankees were going nowhere at midseason and there was little reason to believe they’d climb back into the race in August and September.

Both Chapman and Miller were traded for monster prospect packages. We’re talking three top 100 caliber guys plus several more pieces. And Adam Warren too. He’s cool. The bullpen trade market was outrageous and the Yankees would have been foolish not to take advantage, especially given the free agent class. The Yankees finished five games back of the second wildcard spot. Dellin Betances struggled late in the season, but not enough that keeping Chapman and/or Miller would have been worth it. Trading those guys was 100% the right move. Zero questions asked. That they can sign a replacement elite reliever(s) this winter is gravy.