Cashman: A-Rod invited to Spring Training as instructor

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

According to Christian Red, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees have invited Alex Rodriguez to Spring Training as an instructor. His special advisor role runs through the end of this year. “He’s certainly invited to participate in Spring Training, but Alex is also free to do as he pleases, if he wants to try and keep playing,” said Cashman.

There has been no indication A-Rod wants to continue playing — he’s living the dad life on social media — and even if he wanted to, who’s going to sign him? Rodriguez hasn’t been an effective hitter since August 2015 and free agency is loaded with righty sluggers. Teams would sign Mike Napoli or Chris Carter before A-Rod. Heck, the Yankees chose Billy Butler over A-Rod late last year.

“Alex is enjoying his time off and looking forward to heading to Spring Training to work with the young guys as he has said all along,” said Ron Berkowitz, A-Rod’s spokesman, to Red. That sure seems to indicate Rodriguez is done playing and plans to report to Spring Training to help out as an instructor in a few weeks.

Although A-Rod’s official title is “special advisor,” his role is to work with young players, so he’s more like a special instructor. The Yankees had Rodriguez at Instructional League last September to work with several of their top prospects, including Clint Frazier, Jorge Mateo, and Blake Rutherford.

A-Rod at Instructs. (@AROD)
A-Rod at Instructs. (@AROD)

“We welcome the opportunity for him to impact our young players at Spring Training,” added Cashman. “Alex would work directly for Hal (Steinbrenner). All the parameters have been vocalized and they remain the same from last year. He’s got a life to live too, and I’m sure he’s going to have a lot of opportunities in broadcasting, in business. People will be tugging him in a lot of different directions.”

The Yankees bring a ton of guest instructors to Spring Training each year. A ton. A-Rod’s arrangement is pretty unique though. He was released as a player and the Yankees gave him this special advisor role, essentially so they can extract some value out of the $21M they’ll pay him in 2017. Most guest instructors stick around camp for a few days before heading home. Will Rodriguez be around longer than usual? I guess we’ll find out pretty soon.

Mailbag: Untouchable Prospects, Santana, Bautista, HOF

Welcome to the first RAB mailbag of the new year. We’ve got 14 questions for you this week. As always, the place to send your questions is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com.

Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)
Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)

Dan asks: They say a team needs to know which prospects to trade and which to hold onto when making deals. Who would you say are the top 5 prospects we should try to hold on to and who are the top 5 who you could cope with losing if they were dealt? Just to clarify, I’m not talking about organizational players, I’m talking about actual prospects who you think are less likely to work out.

I’ve written this a few times myself. The Yankees have a great farm system right now, arguably the best in baseball, but of course everyone won’t work out. That’s baseball. In a perfect world you keep the good ones and trade the bad ones before they have a chance to show they’re not going to make it. Sell high, as they say.

Of course, it’s damn near impossible to tell which guys are going to work out and which ones will bust. Being able to predict the future would make life boring. Personally, I’d be most willing to part with position players with contact issues and/or defensive questions, and most pitchers (due to injury risk). So, based on that, here are my lists:

I’d put Justus Sheffield in the keeper pile because among of the Yankees’ best pitching prospects, he’s the healthiest and most advanced. A healthy Kaprielian would be an easy call over Sheffield, but Kaprielian missed almost the entire 2016 season with an elbow issue, and that’s scary.

Mateo is a difficult one because he didn’t have a great 2016 season and he did strike out a fair amount in High-A (21.3%), especially for a guy whose game is going to be putting the ball in play and running like hell. The tools are incredible though, probably the best in the system, and he still is only 21. He’s a keeper for me.

I should make it clear that just because I have those five players listed in the “trade” category, it doesn’t mean I want them gone. I’d prefer to hold on to Frazier and Judge because they’re potential middle of the order bats close to MLB. I’m just saying that in a potential blockbuster trade, say for Jose Quintana, I’d prefer to trade them before the others.

Frank asks: I just finished reading an article on FanGraphs and noticed that Michael Pineda had a 3.2 fWAR and Jake Arrieta had a 3.8 fWAR in 2016. Can you explain how this even remotely makes sense?

It’s good to slap together a quick WAR primer every now and then. There are two major versions of WAR: FanGraphs (fWAR) and Baseball Reference (bWAR). For pitchers, fWAR is based on FIP, which only looks at strikeouts, walks, and home runs. It eliminates balls in play based on the assumption the pitcher has no control over whether his defense makes the play. Nowadays we know some pitchers are better at limiting hard contact than others, which affects whether the defense can make the play, so FIP is a bit outdated.

bWAR is based on actual runs allowed, not FIP. That’s why Pineda (4.82 ERA) had +1.2 bWAR in 2016 while Arrieta (3.10 ERA) was at +3.4 bWAR. Pineda has always had incredible strikeout and walk rates, so his FIP is consistently lower than his ERA. fWAR overrates Pineda. Anyone who’s watched him the last three years knows he’s prone to fat mistake pitches and is far more hittable than the strikeout and walk numbers would lead you to believe. I use bWAR almost exclusively for pitchers. Tell me what happened, not what theoretically should have happened.

Lucas asks: B-Ref says Ellsbury had the 2nd best Defensive season of his career last year. Just from watching him he seemed to have really fallen off last year. What gives?

The defensive metrics were all over the place with Jacoby Ellsbury last year for whatever reason. Here are the numbers:

  • DRS: +8 (third best season out of ten)
  • UZR: +0.7 (seventh best season)
  • FRAA: -14.5 (worst season)
  • Total Zone: +1 (sixth best season)
  • Defensive WAR: +1.2 (second best)

Yeah, I don’t know either. My eyes told me Ellsbury was still a solid defensive center fielder last season, though not as good as he was two or three years ago. That’s normal. He turned 33 in September and guys tend to slow down at that age. Johnny Damon‘s transition to left field started at age 33 and he was there full-time within a year. Ellsbury figures to make a similar transition soon enough, which is another reason Brett Gardner almost has to be traded.

P.J. asks: I realize it’s premature since 2017 hasn’t even started but jumping ahead to next winter’s FA class. Do you think the Yankees would have any interest in Carlos Santana as a DH on say a 3 or 4 year deal @ $15MM per? The roster spot would be open and he really isn’t blocking any Yankee player.

I love Santana. One of my favorite hitters in the game. Last season he hit .259/.366/.498 (132 wRC+) with 34 home runs and exactly as many walks as strikeouts (99 each, or 14.4% of his plate appearances). Santana will turn 31 shortly after Opening Day and he’s been a consistent 20+ homer/90+ walk player. And he switch-hits. That’s cool. Matt Holliday is on a one-year contract, so the Yankees have an opening at DH going forward, and Santana could also spent time at first base as well. He’d be a nice caddy for Greg Bird going forward.

Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Next winter’s free agent class is loaded with power corner bats again and I wonder if Santana will get stuck waiting for a contract a la Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, and Chris Carter this year. The qualifying offer will approach $18M next year and I’m not sure the Indians will risk it, especially since there’s a chance Santana won’t sign a $50M+ contract. In that case Cleveland would only get a supplemental third round draft pick, not a first rounder. I definitely have interest in Santana though. Dude can rake.

Al asks: If the Dodgers are willing to trade a premium prospect for a RH second baseman, why don’t the Yankees gauge their interest in Castro? I’m not down on Castro, but if the Yankees could get De Leon or Bellinger, that might be a smart move. We could live with Refsnyder or Utley for a year until one of the middle infield prospects is ready.

The Yankees aren’t getting a premium prospect for Starlin Castro. They traded Adam Warren to get him last year. What did Castro do in 2016 to raise his stock from Warren to someone like Jose De Leon? He hit a career high 21 homers and that’s about it. His (lack of) approach will still drive you nuts, and now he’s more expensive and another year closer to free agency. The Dodgers are willing to trade De Leon (and others) for Brian Dozier because Dozier is a considerably better player than Castro. Castro’s not worth a premium prospect at all. If a team offers one, the Yankees should trade him immediately. It’d be a great one-year flip.

Brady asks: I’m reading reports that Bautista would sign a 1 year deal at or above the QO threshold (~$17M). That’s a very good player on a short term contract. I know the outfield is crowded, but how do you not make a 1/17 offer? What are the draft ramifications?

The free agent compensation rules are the same this offseason, so the Yankees would have to surrender their first round pick (16th overall) to sign Bautista. I don’t want the Yankees anywhere near him, even on a one-year contract. That’s a move you make when you’re ready to win the World Series right now, not when you’re trying to develop your next young core. Signing the 36-year-old Bautista means the 24-year-old Judge has to go back to Triple-A, and that’s not something a smart rebuilding team does. And you know what else? Not many people like Bautista either, especially around these parts. Let’s stick with the young, exciting, likable players. Could be cool.

Dave asks (short version): Am I crazy to think that adding Robertson & Quintana makes us a solid Wild Card contender?

They very well might. Jose Quintana could be as much as a five-win upgrade over whichever young kid he replaces in the rotation, and David Robertson over the last guy in the bullpen could be another win as well. Maybe two. Assuming the Yankees don’t give up anything off their MLB roster in the trade, Quintana and Robertson could represent an additional 5-7 wins in 2017. I think the Yankees are somewhere in the 82-84 win range right now. Add those two, and suddenly the Yankees are looking at a win total in the 87-91 win range, which means postseason contention.

Mark asks: If Sabathia pitches to the tune of 10-12 wins and a 4.00 era in 2017, is it worth offering him $8m 1 year deal for 2018? I picture him being the sort of Kuroda/Pettitte type to keep signing 1 year deals if he is feeling well and continues to master the art of pitching. Or do you think he has made enough money that there isn’t enough incentive to keep playing? He doesn’t seem like the David Cone type, pitch until they take the jersey away.

If CC Sabathia pitches effectively in 2017 and is open to returning on a one-year contract in 2018, the Yankees should totally bring him back. They’re going to need the pitching, and Sabathia would be the perfect one-year contract candidate. The Yankees know him and vice versa, so there would be no adjustment period, and Sabathia would be a pretty great clubhouse guy to have around the kids. He’s basically Andy Pettitte at this point. If he wants to keep pitching and is effective, then keep putting those one-year contracts in front of him. There will always be room in the rotation for a solid veteran starter, especially a lefty in Yankee Stadium.

Kenny asks: Mike, you have mentioned a lefty reliever as a small priority (even though I think Layne is more than fine, remember the Toronto game?)but what about Charlie Furbush? Converted starter with AL experience and a funky delivery who would probably come cheap off of a season where he didn’t pitch because of rotator cuff issues.

The Mariners traded Pineda, Cliff Lee, and Doug Fister all within 18 months of each other, and pretty much all they had to show for those trades was Furbush. Brutal. Furbush was pretty darn good for Seattle from 2012-15, pitching to a 3.23 ERA (3.02 FIP) with 27.9% strikeouts and 8.2% walks in 175.1 innings, but he missed the entire 2016 season with shoulder problems and was non-tendered last month. He’s worth a minor league contract, sure, but the Yankees aren’t in position to guarantee him a roster spot. Not after the shoulder injury and not with 40-man roster space at a premium. Aside from Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, healthy Charlie Furbush is probably the best lefty reliever in free agency right now, but is healthy?

Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)
Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)

Joe asks: These days it seems that pitching prospects don’t get taken seriously unless they throw 95. Is there anyone coming up through the Yankee system who has the potential to be another Jimmy Key- meaning someone who may turn into a quality starter without lighting up any radar guns?

Not really. Ian Clarkin and Dietrich Enns are probably the closest thing to a Jimmy Key type in the system right now. Depending which scouting report you read, Clarkin’s fastball hovers around 90 mph these days, down a few ticks from before his elbow injury in 2015. Enns has never been a hard-thrower. He’ll top out at 91 mph on his best days. Neither Clarkin nor Enns has Key’s pinpoint control and dead fish changeup, so don’t expect them to match his success. Teams look for prospects who throw hard because a) you can’t teach it, b) velocity gives you more margin for error, and c) pitchers lose velocity as they age, so the guys who are sitting in the upper-80s in their early-20s might not have much staying power in the show.

Paul asks: What kind of year would Holliday have to have for the Yankees to consider offering him a qualifying offer?

I don’t think it’s possible. I mean, yeah, I suppose Holliday could have a freak .330/.500/.750 season like Barry Bonds or something, but that won’t happen. The Yankees are going to pay luxury tax in 2017, and per the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they will only be able to receive a draft pick after the fourth round for any qualifying free agent. The upside of getting a draft pick after the fourth round (140th overall range) isn’t nearly great enough to risk having a soon-to-be 38-year-old Holliday accept the $18M or so qualifying offer next winter. Way too much risk, not enough reward. Even a bounceback to his 2014 levels (.272/.370/.441/132 wRC+) wouldn’t make him qualifying offer worthy.

Mark asks: I wanted to ask a question regarding former top prospects who seemingly have fallen out favor, namely Mason Williams and guys like Jake Cave, etc. Do guys like these have any trade value left? Or, are they a wait and hold to see if they can gain value in the future? Another Yankees blog (sorry I’ve been seeing other blogs on the side) suggested that they move Mason Williams for some pitching which seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

They have close to zero trade value. Cave just went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Any team could have had him and kept him — as a two-time Rule 5 Draft guy, he could have elected free agency rather be returned to the Yankees, at which point his new team could have just re-signed him with no strings attached — and yet no one did. Williams is going to be 26 in August and his track record of excellence is very short. He’s got a major shoulder injury in his recent history too. Who is giving up a pitcher for him? I mean a decent pitcher, not a similar busted prospect. Williams is more valuable to the Yankees as a depth option than anything he could realistically fetch in a trade. It’s not 2012 anymore. Guys like Williams and Cave have a negligible amount of trade value.

P.J. asks: Is there a reason 20 year old Thairo Estrada might have been complete ignored by MLB Pipeline when they ranked the Yankees Top 30 Prospects back in August? And is there a chance he could make the list when they update their list in the next month or so?

Estrada was a victim of the system’s depth. MLB.com ranked him 28th in the system before 2016, so he was on the bubble anyway, then the Yankees went and made all those trades to bolster the system. I’m a huge Thairo fan, yet when I sketched out the first draft of my annual preseason top 30 prospects list, he didn’t make the cut. There’s just so much depth in the system right now. Estrada could definitely make it back into the top 30 at some point. Maybe not in Spring Training, but later in the season or next winter, once more prospects graduate and the system inevitably thins out a bit.

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
Javy. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Mike asks (short version): Why are some retired players left off the Hall of Fame ballot? I noticed Javier Vazquez is not on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot and believe it or not, he had a career 53.9 fWAR which is 65th all time, but Tim Wakefield Is on it and his career fWAR was just 27.4. Both finished their careers in 2011. Of course I am not saying Vazquez is a HOFer or anything, but I’m wondering why he was left off but someone like Wakefield was put on.

First a player needs to spend ten years in the big leagues to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Then they need to pass through a six-person screening committee (all BBWAA members) to actually be placed on the ballot. The screening committee determined Vazquez did not deserve to be on the Hall of Fame ballot, which was egregious. Vazquez is, by a huge margin, the greatest Puerto Rican born pitcher in MLB history. It’s not close. Some numbers:

  • Wins: 165 (Juan Pizarro is second with 131)
  • Innings: 2,840 (Jaime Navarro is second with 2,055.1)
  • Strikeouts: 2,536 (Pizarro is second with 1,522)
  • WAR: +43.3 (Roberto Hernandez is second with +18.5)

Vazquez isn’t a Hall of Famer, but holy crap how does the screening committee leave him off the ballot? Matt Stairs is on the ballot. Casey Blake is on the ballot. Arthur Rhodes is on the ballot. Vazquez belongs. So did Chan-Ho Park a few years ago. Park was the first Korean player in MLB history, yet he was left off the ballot. Hall of Famer? No. But at least deserving of being on the ballot. The screening committee generally does a good job. Vazquez and Park are the two major oversights in recent years.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Wanna work for the Yankees? They’re one of several teams looking to hire an in-game social media person. You’ll basically get paid to run the team’s Twitter account during games. Here’s all the info. Seven other teams are hiring too. I’m glad to see the Yankees are upping their Twitter game. Some other clubs are really funny and engaging on Twitter. (The Indians and Mariners jump to mind.)

Here is the open thread for the evening. The Nets are playing and there’s some college hoops on the schedule too. Pretty slow night. Good night for not sports. I’m watching Black Mirror these days and it is, uh, harrowing. Talk about whatever here.

Aroldis Chapman could be even more effective by being less predictable with his fastball

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

By any objective measure, Aroldis Chapman is one of the best relievers in baseball and most dominant single-inning forces in baseball history. Chapman has struck out 42.6% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, including 44.2% over the last five seasons, the highest rate in history by nearly two percentage points. Craig Kimbrel (40.7%) and Kenley Jansen (39.8%) are the only pitchers within nine percentage points of Chapman.

As good as he is, Chapman is not without his flaws as a pitcher. No player is perfect, after all. Chapman does walk a few too many hitters (career 11.6 BB%), and yeah, he’s made it known he prefers to work the ninth inning and only the ninth inning. Chapman can also be a bit predictable on the mound, especially when he falls behind in the count. (And since he walks so many batters, he’s behind in the count more often than the average pitcher.)

I first noticed this during Chapman’s short stint with the Yankees last year, but he was here and gone so quick — Chapman was on the active roster only 76 days between his suspension and the trade — that I never got around to looking into it. Since he’s back for at least three and possibly as many as five years, it’s time for a deeper dive. Here is Chapman’s pitch selection over the last three years:

Fastball Slider Changeup
Count Even 71.6% 22.2% 5.4%
Pitcher Ahead 68.8% 19.5% 10.5%
Batter Ahead 84.8% 11.9% 2.0%

There are two obvious caveats here. One, every pitcher throws more fastballs when they’re behind in the count. Last season pitchers threw a fastball 64.4% of the time when they were behind in the count. It was 56.2% when the count was even and 48.4% when ahead in the count. And two, not every pitcher has Chapman’s fastball. No other pitcher does. He’s one of a kind. Life is good when you throw 100 mph on the regular.

Chapman, when he falls behind in the count and needs to even things back up, will lean on his high-octane fastball and understandably so. It’s the most dominant fastball in baseball history. There’s no point in keeping it in your back pocket. Aroldis is leaning on that pitch when behind in the count more and more with each passing year too. It was 80.5% fastballs three years ago, 84.6% two years ago, and 89.1% last year.

Again, Chapman’s fastball is historically great, so throwing more of them seems like a good idea. Look at his numbers when he’s been behind in the count the last three years though:

Count Even: .199/.216/.269 (40 OPS+)
Pitcher Ahead: .068/.071/.083 (-40 OPS+)
Batter Ahead: .263/.526/.391/ (93 OPS+)

When Chapman gets ahead in the count, forget it. Game over. Opponents have a .154 OPS (OPS!) against him when he’s gotten ahead in the count since 2014. Crazy. When the count is even, Chapman is still dominant. The hitter might as well be down 0-2.

But, when Chapman falls behind in the count, he’s damn near average. Keep in mind a 93 OPS+ in those situations still isn’t great for the hitter, but relative to Chapman’s standards, it feels like a miracle. Hitting .263 against a guy throwing that hard is impressive, and I can’t help but wonder whether Chapman’s predictability with the fastball plays into that. Sure, he throws extremely hard, but if hitters know it’s coming, their life gets a little easier.

The best way to look at this is by isolating Chapman’s fastball. Here’s how hitters have performed against his fastball in the various count states over the last three years:

AVG ISO Whiff% Foul%
Count Even .210 .060 15.7% 20.5%
Pitcher Ahead .059 .005 25.0% 24.7%
Batter Ahead .389 .185 13.9% 19.4%

I literally lol’d at the .005 ISO against Chapman’s fastball when he’s ahead in the count. Aroldis has allowed one extra-base hit against the heater when he had the count advantage over the last three seasons. One. It was a Garrett Jones double on an 0-2 fastball in August 2014. (I went back through MLB.tv to see if there was any defensive funny business, but no, it was a booming double off the top of the wall on a mistake fastball down the middle. So it goes.)

Anyway, hitters have had more success against Chapman’s fastball when he’s behind in the count. A lot more success. They’ve hit for more average and power, and swung and missed a heck of a lot less. (A 13.9% whiff rate on a fastball is still insanely good, I should note.) I thought maybe this would explain the foul balls too — Aroldis does seem to give up a lot of fouls, doesn’t he? — but apparently not. Either way, Chapman’s fastball is not nearly as effective when he’s behind in the count, yet that’s the pitch he’s throwing nine times out of ten in those spots.

Based on this, it’s fair to wonder whether Chapman would benefit from using his slider and changeup a bit more often when behind in the count. Not necessarily when he’s down 3-0 or anything like that, but in 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 counts, when a ball doesn’t put a man on base? Why not? The goal is to put something else in the back of the hitter’s mind and change the scouting report. That’s why Chapman’s fastball is so good when he’s ahead in the count. He throws the most sliders and changeups in those spots and the fastball plays up. Right now, hitters can sit fastball when he’s behind.

This is nitpicking to the nth degree, of course. Chapman is historically great even while throwing all those fastballs when behind in the count, so he doesn’t have to change anything to remain effective. This is more a look at a way Chapman can be even better, which is pretty crazy to think about. Mixing in a handful of sliders and changeups when behind in the count, just a few to stop hitters from sitting heater, could make a pretty significant difference.

Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jason Hammel

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees went into this offseason looking for “pitching, pitching, pitching,” and so far they’ve (re-)signed Aroldis Chapman. And that’s it. Unless you count claiming Joe Mantiply off waivers and signing Jason Gurka to a minor league deal. The rotation has been untouched and Chapman has been the only bullpen upgrade.

Of course, this free agent class was very thin on pitching, so it’s not like the Yankees have sat idle while a bunch of potential aces came off the board. Rich Hill, who was in independent ball 18 months ago, was the top starter on the market. Ivan Nova was arguably the second best option. Yeah. This was not a good offseason to need pitching, that’s for sure. Free agency is thin and trade prices are sky high.

The best free agent starter still on the board right now is veteran righty Jason Hammel, who spent the last two years with the Cubs and became a free agent when the team declined his $12M option. They had to pay him a $2M buyout, so it was essentially a $10M decision. The Cubs reportedly left it up to Hammel, and decided to test the market. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Over the last three seasons the 34-year-old Hammel has been a boringly reliable middle of the rotation pitcher. He’s threw no more than 176.1 innings and no fewer than 166.2 innings in each of those three seasons, and during that time he has a 3.68 ERA (4.02 FIP). Like I said, boringly reliable.

The 2016 season was Hammel’s worst in seven years in terms of strikeout (20.8%), walk (7.7%), and home run (1.35 HR/9) rates. Homers were up around the league and Hammel wasn’t too far off from his career 1.13 HR/9, so maybe we can give him a mulligan there. Here are the last three years:

jason-hammel-rates

Not great, not awful, no alarming spikes. Hammel’s strikeout and walk numbers were indeed his worst in several years last season, but they weren’t that far off from his 2014-15 numbers either. Consistency is boring.

One aspect of Hammel’s performance that can not be ignored is his tendency to fade in the second half. It’s happened three years in a row now. Last season Hammel failed to complete four innings in three of his final seven starts, and he allowed 35 runs in his final 32.1 innings of the season. Egads. Look at this:

jason-hammel-era

Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend. Hammel is not a 200-inning workhorse. He’s essentially a 170-inning pitcher who is most effective during the first 140 innings. Things get dicey after that. As long as his next employer is aware of that and acts accordingly — use off-days to skip a start now and then, things like that — it’s not a huge problem.

Current Stuff

Hammel has gone through several transformations since his time with the Devils Rays way back when. He’s gone from four-seamer/curveball pitcher to sinker/slider pitcher to four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher. Hammel still throws the curveball now and then, and every once in a while he’ll toss a changeup, but for the most part he’s a three-pitch pitcher these days. The 2016 numbers:

  • Four-seamer: 9.1% whiffs and 29.2% grounders (MLB averages: 6.9% and 37.9%)
  • Sinker: 2.8% whiffs and 58.8% grounders (MLB averages: 5.4% and 49.5%)
  • Slider: 17.5% whiffs and 42.2% grounders (MLB averages: 15.2% and 43.9%)

Hammel does not have a dominant pitch. He was able to get a good amount of ground balls with his sinker a year ago, and the slider was probably his best pitch overall considering it was basically average at getting both swings and misses and grounders. Because his changeup is close to a non-factor, lefties (.344 wOBA) had more success against Hammel than righties (.292 wOBA) last year. Here’s some video:

Like I said earlier, boringly reliable. Hammel won’t be appointment television. He’s not very exciting, but he is generally effective.

Injury History

The Cubs did not carry Hammel on their postseason roster — I’m not sure he would have been on the playoff roster anyway given Chicago’s other options — because elbow tightness ended his season in late-September. He also missed most of August with forearm tendinitis. That’s not good. Forearm trouble is a common precursor to elbow trouble. By all accounts though, Hammel’s elbow is structurally sound and he’ll be ready in time for Spring Training.

The recent forearm and elbow woes are the first time Hammel has had arm trouble in his big league career. He missed a month with a groin strain back in 2010 (who cares) and about two months total following right knee surgery in 2012. Hammel had surgery to repair cartilage damage, returned in six weeks, then felt renewed soreness and missed another two weeks. The knee has been problem free ever since.

Injuries have not been a problem throughout Hammel’s career. And it means basically nothing. Hammel finished the season hurt, with an arm problem no less, and it can be considered a recurring injury. He had forearm trouble in August and then elbow trouble in September. That’s scary and certainly a reason he remains unsigned in January. Forget that he’s been healthy most of his career. He finished the year hurt and that’s the most recent information.

Contract Estimates

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

Once Jeremy Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer, Hammel was no worse than the third best starter on the free agent market. He seemed poised to cash in big as a free agent, and he still might, but so far things have been quiet. Here are some contract estimates:

It sure seems like Hammel won’t be getting a three-year contract this offseason. I’m guessing he’d jump all over a three-year offer at this point. Recent reports indicate Hammel has received nothing more than one-years contract offers this winter, which is telling. Teams must be afraid of that elbow.

Hammel lost $10M when the Cubs declined his option. He and his agent — Hammel changed representatives earlier this winter because his market was not developing — are probably looking to at least recoup that $10M, so does that mean the floor is a one-year deal worth $10M? Possibly. I’m taking a shot in the dark here.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a veteran starting pitcher who has been pretty good in recent years and won’t cost an arm and a leg. There is no such thing as too much pitching depth. The Yankees will appreciate having an extra veteran starter around whenever the kids inevitably hit a bump in the road all at once. You know it’s coming.

That yes comes with several caveats though. For starters, there’s the whole elbow thing. That’s kind of a big deal. Secondly, home runs have always been an issue for Hammel and Yankee Stadium will only exacerbate that. And third, Hammel won’t be playing in front of the Cubs’ historically great defense anymore. The Yankees have a solid team defense, much better than in previous years, but it’s not on par with Chicago’s.

Last year Hammel had a 3.83 ERA (4.48 FIP) with the Cubs. Again: boringly reliable. Move him to Yankee Stadium (and the other hitter friendly AL East parks) in the DH league and it might be a 4.50 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 2017. That kinda stinks, doesn’t it? I’m just spitballing though. Who knows what’ll happen next year. Point is, there are several reasons to believe Hammel’s performance is about to take a turn for the worst.

Still, it’s not like Hammel would be blocking a young pitcher. This isn’t like signing Mike Napoli and sending Greg Bird to Triple-A. Signing Hammel to the cheap one-year contract he appears destined to sign would be a worthwhile move for the pitching needy Yankees, even with the elbow red flags. (It ain’t my money!) It’s just a question of whether Hammel is willing to pitch in such a hitter friendly park. Yankee Stadium isn’t a good place to rebuild value.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, Nathaniel Grow at FanGraphs wrote about a little known California labor law that could, in theory, allow Mike Trout to become a free agent right now. Section 2855 of the state labor code limits all employment contracts to seven years, and since Trout has been an Angels employee since 2009, he could technically terminate his current contract and seek employment elsewhere. This applies to other longtime California players like Clayton Kershaw and Buster Posey as well. It won’t happen because the inevitable legal battle would be long and costly, but still, it’s kinda fun to think about.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. The Knicks and Rangers are both playing, and there’s some college hoops on the docket as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.