Thoughts at the start of the new year

Moose ain't making the Hall of Fame this year. (Presswire)
Moose ain’t making the Hall of Fame this year. (Presswire)

The holidays are behind us and a new year is now underway. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in 46 days, and before you know it, there will be real live baseball to enjoy. Granted, it’ll be Spring Training baseball, but those games are fun in their own way. Here are some thoughts at the start of 2015.

1. The Yankees have had a very busy offseason so far, making six trades and signing two notable free agents. I find it interesting that in three of those trades the Yankees received more players than they gave up. The three exceptions were all one-for-one swaps — Didi Gregorius/Shane Greene, Frankie Cervelli/Justin Wilson, and Shawn Kelley/Johnny Barbato. They received three players for Martin Prado and David Phelps, two players for Manny Banuelos, and one player for straight cash homey (Gonzalez Germen). Even by letting David Robertson walk and signing Andrew Miller, the club gained a player via the draft pick compensation. Usually the Yankees are the team giving up more players than they’re receiving. The Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Javier Vazquez trades are recent examples. They’ve focused on adding more youth to the roster this offseason and they’ve also added more depth to the organization overall, especially in the bullpen. That means more help from within during the season to cover for injuries/ineffectiveness and also more trade chips.

2. The Yankees have added youth this winter, and they’ve done it by acquiring players with MLB experience, not prospects. Gregorius has a little more than a full season of big league time under his belt. Eovaldi, despite being only 24, has thrown 460 career innings in the show and Wilson is over 130 himself. Even guys like John Ryan Murphy and Chasen Shreve have big league time. It’s not much, but they’re not coming in with no idea of what to expect. Despite all this roster turnover and the emphasis on youth, the only true rookie with zero MLB experience on the roster come Opening Day figures to be second baseman Rob Refsnyder, assuming he beats out Jose Pirela for the job. Prospects are great, everyone loves a good farm system, but they are still just prospects and they’ll break your damn heart time and time again. Other teams — most notably the Athletics but also the Marlins — have rebuilt in recent years by getting big league players in trades. It speeds up the rebuilding process and removes some of the risk. The jump from the minors to MLB has never been tougher than it is right now thanks to all the information teams have. Guys like Gregorius, Eovaldi, and Wilson have already made that jump.

3. Now, that said, I think it’s very likely the 2015 Yankees will be worse with Gregorius and Eovaldi than they would have been with Greene and Prado. Same with Murphy instead of Cervelli. These moves aren’t all geared towards 2015, however. For the first time in a very long time, dating back to the pre-Derek Jeter era, the Yankees appear to have one eye on this coming season and one eye on the future. And don’t get me wrong, I get it, the team had an aging Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada on the roster and tried to maximize the end of their careers. I totally understand going all-in from 2007 or so through 2014. There’s a time and a place for focusing on the here and now. The Yankees are no longer there. They need to start looking ahead and guys like Gregorius and Eovaldi help accomplish that. The 2015 Yankees may be worse off, but I think the 2016 and beyond teams are in better shape after this offseason. A lot better shape, really.

Oh no, a player who smiles. (Andy Lyons/Getty)
Oh no, a player who smiles. That means he doesn’t care! (Getty)

4. As for Gregorius, I feel like he’s somehow gotten underrated in recent weeks. And this is coming from someone who isn’t all that optimistic about his long-term offensive potential. But there seem to be a lot of people acting like he’s Brendan Ryan or Ramiro Pena, someone like that, which is nuts. Gregorius, in his 191 MLB games, has hit .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) with a 14.2% strikeout rate against right-handed pitchers, and that’s pretty good for a guy expected to hit eighth or ninth. Yankees’ shortstops hit .226/.277/.298 (58 wRC+) against righties from 2013-14. I’m going to repeat that: Yankees’ shortstops hit .226/.277/.298 (58 wRC+) against righties from 2013-14. Even if Gregorius’ true talent against righties is the .247/.304/.402 (91 wRC+) line he put against them in 2014, he’s a huge upgrade over what the team has been getting at shortstop. He’s on the right side of the platoon and his defense is leaps and bounds better than anything the Yankees have had in years. Gregorius is no star, and I remain skeptical about his bat going forward, but the bar has been set so low at shortstop that it’s hard to believe he’ll be anything but a multi-win upgrade as soon as 2015. His impact is being underrated.

5. The 2015 Hall of Fame class will be announced at 2pm ET today (here’s the ballot) and I think four players are getting in: Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz. (For what it’s worth, all four are currently tracking over the 75% threshold). I count 15 players I would vote for right now, but since the voting max is ten, five would get hung out to dry. My ten: Johnson, Pedro, Biggio, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, and Mike Mussina. Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Sammy Sosa would be left on the cutting room floor. (I would have voted for Mark McGwire in the past, but I’ve come around on the idea of him not being Hall worthy.) I understand the strategy of not voting for Johnson and Pedro and giving the votes to other players since those two are getting in anyway — that’s what Mike Bernardino did — but I’m not comfortable doing that. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years. As you can tell, I don’t really care about PED stuff or cheating in general. Players have cheated for over a century and as long as there is baseball, players will cheat. Doctored baseballs, doctored bodies, whatever. It would be nice if players didn’t cheat, but they do and it’s not the BBWAA’s place to “punish” these guys. I see the Hall of Fame as a record of the game’s all-time greats and I don’t think we can simply ignore the parts we don’t like.

Monday Night Open Thread

On this date in 1920, the Yankees officially completed their purchase of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $100,000 plus a $350,000 loan. He hit .349/.484/.711 (209 OPS+) with 659 home runs during his 15 years in pinstripes, 311 more dingers than any other player during that time (Lou Gehrig was second with 348). Ruth was quite good at this baseballing thing, I’d say.

This is your open thread for the night. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Ruth trade sale, or anything else right here. Have at it.

Sherman: Yankees re-sign Slade Heathcott to minor league contract

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees have re-signed Slade Heathcott to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The team non-tendered Heathcott back in November, allowing him to come off the 40-man roster without passing through waivers. They did the same with Jose Campos, who also re-signed.

Heathcott, 24, played only nine games last season due to a pair of knee surgeries — his season started late following offseason surgery and ended early due to another procedure in June. The invitation to big league Spring Training is an indication Heathcott either is healthy now or expected to be ready to play by time camp opens.

In parts of six minor league seasons since being the 29th overall pick in the 2009 draft — the compensation pick the Yankees received for failing to sign Gerrit Cole in 2008 — Heathcott has hit .268/.346/.404 in only 309 career games. He’s had lots of shoulder and knee problems, including multiples surgery on each.

Assuming he’s healthy to start the regular season, Heathcott could head to Triple-A Scranton after playing 112 games with Double-A Trenton from 2013-14. A return to the Thunder is always possible, as is starting down in High-A Tampa to shake off the rust. We’ll have to see how the upper level outfields shake out. Lots of candidates.

The case for trading Dellin Betances

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In terms of the sheer number of transactions — not necessarily the magnitude of the moves — this has been the busiest Yankees’ offseason in quite some time. The team has already made six trades, one more than they made during the 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 offseasons combined. They’ve also made two notable free agent signings in Andrew Miller and Chase Headley. It’s been a busy winter thus far.

All those trades have more or less exhausted New York’s big league trade chips, meaning the players on the projected 25-man roster with actual trade value. (So not Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, for example). The most notable exception is Brett Gardner, who seems unlikely to be dealt at this point. The other exception is Dellin Betances, who has not been seriously discussed as a trade chip this winter. So why don’t we do that now?

The case against trading Betances is pretty straight forward: he’s one of the five or six best relievers in the world, he’s cheap, and he’s under team control for another five years. That’s a core player a team can build around, even as a reliever. In fact, the Yankees (re)built their bullpen around Betances this offseason the way they built it around Mariano Rivera all those years. He was that dominant last season.

The case for trading Betances is much more complicated even though we all know no player is ever truly untouchable. There’s always a price. Don’t you think the Angels would listen if the Giants offered Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey for Mike Trout? I think they would. They’d be foolish not to. There are several reasons — some more valid than others — for the Yankees to consider dealing Betances. Let’s run ’em down.

Injury & (Lack of) Command History

The 2014 season was the first time Betances did not have any sort of injury and/or command issues since 2006, his draft year. He spent parts of eight years in the minors and there were a lot of walks and injuries along the way. Let’s review:

  • 2006: Healthy and 7.8% walk rate after signing.
  • 2007: Missed two months with elbow inflammation and had a 15.0% walk rate.
  • 2008: Missed six weeks with shoulder inflammation and had a 11.7% walk rate.
  • 2009: Had a 13.1% walk rate then missed three months following Tommy John surgery.
  • 2010: Missed two months rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and had a 6.6% walk rate thereafter.
  • 2011: Missed three weeks with an unknown injury and had a 12.6% walk rate.
  • 2012: Missed three weeks with shoulder inflammation and had a 15.7% walk rate.
  • 2013: Healthy, 12.2% walk rate.
  • 2014: Healthy, 7.0 walk rate.

Like I said, lots of walks and lots of injuries. Arm injuries too. Betances has been healthy these last two years, plus his walk rate has been manageable since he moved into the bullpen full-time, though there’s too much ugly history here to ignore. One truly elite season doesn’t wipe this all away. Baseball history is littered with guys with bad command who figure it out for a season or three before falling apart. Look at Daniel Bard or Derrick Turnbow, for example.

He Can’t Possibly Be That Good Again, Right?

Here’s the list of full-time relievers with a sub-2.00 ERA, a sub-2.00 FIP, and 60+ innings in multiple seasons: Craig Kimbrel (2012-14), Greg Holland (2013-14), Eric Gagne (2002-03), and Dennis Eckersley (1990 and 1992). That’s it. Mariano Rivera never did it and David Robertson did it once (2011). Twenty-two others have done it in one season, including Betances last year, but only those four have done it multiple times.

If Betances repeats his 2014 dominance in 2015, he will buck a lot of history and join a very exclusive club. That isn’t to say Betances won’t be excellent in the future, I have no reason to believe he won’t be very good going forward, but it’s very likely he just had his career year. Robertson had a 1.08 ERA (1.84 FIP) in 66.2 innings during his age 26 season — the season Dellin just completed — and you know what? That was his career year. Robertson was very good during his age 27-29 season, but he never did repeat his age 26 performance.

“Selling high” isn’t really a thing — at least not in the sense that teams don’t see through superficial performance and know who is likely to decline going forward — because clubs make trades based on their own internal evaluations, not public opinion or FanGraphs stat pages, though Betances will have less trade value next winter. Even if he repeats his otherworldly performance — I suppose he could improve on it, but that’s damn near impossible — he’ll be one year closer to free agency and that matters.

Bullpen Depth

The Yankees have acquired a lot of bullpen depth not just this offseason, but over the last several years. They’ve done it through the draft (Betances, Adam Warren, Danny Burawa, Jacob Lindgren, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, etc.), through trades (Justin Wilson, Gonzalez Germen, Johnny Barbato, Chasen Shreve, David Carpenter), and via the scrap heap (Jose DePaula, Esmil Rogers). That’s not even all the upper level bullpen arms. Just most of them.

Although someone of Betances’ caliber is irreplaceable, the Yankees do have a small army of bullpen arms ready to step in and do the job. The drop off from Betances to the guy replacing him — meaning the last guy in the bullpen, not the guy who takes over the late-innings — isn’t as big as it would have been last year. It’s big, don’t get me wrong, just not as big as it would have been before this bullpen-heavy offseason. The Yankees have a ton of bullpen depth and are in position to deal from that depth to improve other parts of the roster. Betances has, by far, the most trade value among these bullpen arms.

Now, just to be clear, I am not advocated trading Betances. I think the Yankees should keep him as the bullpen cornerstone in the post-Mariano and post-Robertson years. That said, Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t at least entertain the idea of improving the team by trading Betances. They’ve acquired all this bullpen depth for a reason. Betances’ trade value is tough to gauge because elite relievers with five years of team control are never traded, but he could be part of the package to get an ace like Cole Hamels or a young position player like Addison Russell, for example. (Just spitballing here.)

The Yankees have changed course and built up a decent group of young players heading into the 2015 season, especially up the middle and on the mound. Betances is a huge piece of that. There is still more rebuilding work to be done (lots of it, really), and using Betances as a trade chip could be the quickest way to complete that process. His injury history, his lack of command history, the general volatility of relievers, and the team’s bullpen depth are all reasons dealing Dellin makes some sense.

Trade Betances?

Thanks to new hard-throwing approach, Chasen Shreve a promising addition to Yankees’ bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last week, in their first transaction of the new year, the Yankees traded longtime prospect Manny Banuelos to the Braves for a pair of relievers, righty David Carpenter and lefty Chasen Shreve. Carpenter has been in the league for a little while now and will step right into Shawn Kelley’s old setup role. Shreve, on the other hand, is a relative unknown with only 12.1 MLB innings to his credit.

The 24-year-old Shreve is from Las Vegas and he attended the College of Southern Nevada, where he was Bryce Harper’s teammate in 2010. Harper hit 31 homers (with wood bats!) in 66 games as a 17-year-old against college kids and was drafted first overall that year. Shreve had a 5.57 ERA in 42 innings and was picked in the 11th round by Atlanta. Like a few other players on the team, Shreve benefited from the extra exposure as scouts flocked to see Harper.

Prior to the 2010 draft, Baseball America (subs. req’d) gave Shreve a one-sentence scouting report, saying he “was in the mid-80s last year and up to 91 this year, but he also battled arm injuries.” Whatever those arm injuries were, they haven’t hindered him as a pro. The Braves moved Shreve into the bullpen full-time immediately after signing and he averaged 68.1 innings from 2011-14, a full workload for a reliever. Here are his minor league stats, via Baseball Reference:

Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg Lev ERA G IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2010 19 -1.9 Danville APPY Rk 2.25 8 16.0 16 5 4 1 3 0 20 1.188 9.0 0.6 1.7 11.2 6.67
2011 20 -1.8 Rome SALL A 3.86 34 70.0 77 33 30 3 26 4 68 1.471 9.9 0.4 3.3 8.7 2.62
2012 21 -2.1 2 Teams 2 Lgs A+-AA 2.66 43 64.1 61 24 19 3 33 2 57 1.461 8.5 0.4 4.6 8.0 1.73
2013 22 -1.8 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-A+ 3.90 50 62.1 58 32 27 2 30 4 43 1.412 8.4 0.3 4.3 6.2 1.43
2014 23 -1.8 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-AAA 2.67 46 64.0 51 20 19 4 12 1 87 0.984 7.2 0.6 1.7 12.2 7.25
5 Seasons 3.22 181 276.2 263 114 99 13 104 11 275 1.327 8.6 0.4 3.4 8.9 2.64

Baseball America never ranked Shreve among Atlanta’s top 30 prospects in their Prospect Handbook and it’s easy to understand why — he has been young for his level every year of his career, yes, but he had a 3.48 ERA with forgettable strikeout (7.68 K/9 and 19.5 K%) and walk (4.07 BB/9 and 10.3 BB%) rates from 2011-13. Pair that with the “he was in the mid-80s last year and up to 91 this year” scouting report and he just wasn’t all that interesting, even as a lefty.

That all changed during the 2014 season, when Shreve posted his best minor league strikeout (10.24 K/9 and 29.0 K%) and walk (2.79 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%) numbers. He was briefly called up to MLB in July and returned when rosters expanded in September. During his short MLB cameo, Shreve struck out 15 and walked three in his 12.1 innings while averaging 92.5 mph and topping out at 95.2 mph with his fastball according to Brooks Baseball. That’s not the same “he was in the mid-80s last year and up to 91 this year” guy that was in the scouting report back in 2010.

Obviously there’s the physical maturity factor — Shreve was a 19-year-old kid when Baseball America wrote his pre-draft scouting report back in 2010 and now he’s a 24-year-old man who has been under the watch of professional coaches and instructors. He also changed roles and became a full-time reliever. Adding velocity during this phase of a career isn’t exactly unheard of. There is a little more to the story, however. Jake Seiner explains:

Determined to start moving the other direction, he made a conscious decision to change who he was as a pitcher. In Spring Training (of 2014), he mentioned to M-Braves pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn that he was capable of throwing harder but had held back in past years to gain better control, like childhood heroes Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Lewallyn instructed him to rear back and fire more often, and a few months later Shreve was a Major League reliever. In the Minors, the 24-year-old left-hander posted a 2.67 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 64 innings.

“He was a guy that, the last two years, he was a crafty type guy who would move in and out,” Holbert said. “He went from 88-89 to 93-94 or whatever it was, and it stayed.

“It was very strange, if you ask me. It was a different approach and a different way, but it worked out for him. I wish all those other years, we would’ve seen that same Chasen. Maybe he would’ve been in the Majors even sooner.”

Shreve made a conscious decision to change who he was as a pitcher last year in an effort to advance his career, and it worked. Most guys have to learn to scale it back and not throw as hard as possible every pitch so they can improve their command. Shreve did it the other way. He started throwing harder and the result was more strikeouts, fewer walks, and a better pitcher.

There was a tangible reason for Shreve’s improvement last year and that’s exciting. Lefties who sit 92+ and touch 95 aren’t all that common, even in relief. A total of 366 pitchers threw at least 40 innings last year, and of those 366, 172 averaged 92+ mph with their fastball. Of those 172, only 33 were left-handed. Shreve didn’t come close to throwing 40 innings, but he did show that kind of velocity, and his change in approach gives us a reason to believe it’s real.

In addition to his new fastball, Shreve also threw a mid-80s slider and a low-80s changeup during his MLB debut last year. (I’ve seen the changeup called a splitter in some places, but same difference. Both pitches accomplish the same thing.) Here’s a look at that slider, courtesy of Shreve’s only pitching highlight video at MLB.com:

Striking out Ryan Howard — especially as a left-hander — isn’t exactly a tremendous accomplish, but that doesn’t really matter. The slider looks like a decent offering based on that one-pitch sample, and since hitters swung and missed at it 16.7% of the time last year (MLB average for a slider is 15.2%), there’s reason to believe it’s a quality second pitch. The changeup had an even better whiff rate (18.8%), but he rarely threw it, so I’m just going to ignore it for now. Shreve has the requisite two-pitch mix to be a quality big league bullpener.

As for Banuelos, he was once the Yankees’ top prospect — I ranked him number one in 2012 and number two behind Jesus Montero in 2011 — but has been derailed by elbow problems the last few years, including Tommy John surgery. He returned from elbow reconstruction last season and didn’t look much like the pre-injury version of himself, though that wasn’t entirely unexpected after missing nearly two full years. The Yankees talked Banuelos up all summer because that’s what teams do, talk up their prospects, but other reports indicated he didn’t look all that hot. Keith Law (subs. req’d) wrote there was “a big gap between his old 92-95 mph fastball with a little pop and the current 90-92 version” after seeing Manny in June, for example.

Clearly Banuelos’ stock has dropped a bit because of the injuries, and, had he repeated his 2014 showing in 2015, his trade value next offseason would have been tiny. The Yankees used him to get a no doubt big league reliever in Carpenter and an interesting, suddenly hard-throwing southpaw in Shreve, who at this point in time appears to have more actual MLB value than Banuelos despite having a fraction of the name value. In fact, I would say Shreve definitely has more MLB value than Banuelos right now, not “appears to.” If Shreve’s velocity spike is real — and the conscious decision to simply air it out suggests it is — the Yankees may have landed themselves a quietly promising lefty bullpen piece with last week’s trade.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 5th, 2015

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), did not qualify for postseason

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Weekend Open Thread

The holidays this year were so perfectly timed with Christmas and New Year’s right smack in the middle of the week, and as much as I enjoyed the little two-week break, I think I’m ready for things to go back to normal Monday. I must be getting old. Anyway, the video above features the 20 longest homers of 2014, and here are the weekend links:

  • A new year means Jayson Stark’s annual Strange But True column. It’s a must read each and every year. Here’s part one, here’s part two. The Yankees earn a mention because, well, they “lost three games in three days at Yankee Stadium — to three different teams.” They lost to the Twins on June 1, the Mariners on June 2 (makeup of the April 30 rainout), and the Athletics on June 3. Sigh.
  • Keeping with the end of the year theme, David Laurila posted a collection of 2014’s best quotes from his conversations with players, coaches, and executives. There are some real gems in there. Some insightful, some funny, all worth reading.
  • I’m passing this one along even though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet: Chris Mitchell is working on a system to forecast the future MLB value of hitting prospects, a system he named KATOH after Yankees prospect 2B Gosuke Katoh. According to KATOH, one of the best hitting prospects in the minors is Yankees OF Alex Palma, who was in rookie ball last year. OF Ramon Flores and OF Leonardo Molina both rate highly as well.
  • Tony Blengino wrote two really great pieces on players with favorable (and not so favorable) batted ball profiles heading into season. Here’s the AL, here’s the NL. The Yankees aren’t featured prominently or anything, but I find this batted ball stuff so interesting. Wish there was more (and better) data available.
  • Here’s a good piece from James Wagner about Carlos Alvarez, a former Nationals shortstop prospect who went by Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez before it was discovered he lied about his identity. Washington gave him a $1.4M bonus thinking he was 16 when he was really 20. Alvarez, who said Nationals advisor Jose Rijo took a $300,000 kickback from his bonus, is still playing in Mexico and other countries. His case led to the team firing GM Jim Bowden and to MLB overhauling their operations in Latin America.

Friday: This is your open thread for the evening. The Knicks, Nets, Islanders, and Devils are all playing, plus there’s some college football and basketball on as well. Yuo folks have been doing this long enough by now, so you know how this works. Have at it.

Saturday: Use as your open thread again. Go nuts.

Sunday: For the last time, this is your open thread.