The Seventh Inning Guy [2015 Season Review]


Over the last year or so, the Yankees have changed the way they’ve gone about building their roster, focusing on trades for younger players rather than signing free agents. They’ve traded away players on their Major League roster too, not just prospects.

Last November, when something had to be done about the backup catcher logjam, the Yankees shipped Francisco Cervelli to the Pirates for hard-throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson in a straight one-for-one deal. Brian Cashman told reporters he first proposed the trade two years ago. The deal cleared a roster spot for John Ryan Murphy and added another power arm to the bullpen.

A Quiet Spring

The offseason makes you think weird things, man. There was a time last winter when I was convinced Wilson, who has two minor league options remaining, wasn’t a lock for the Opening Day roster. The Yankees had a ton of young relievers in the organization and Wilson could have been squeezed out as part of the numbers crunch. How silly of me.

From the start of Spring Training, it was obvious Wilson was going to be on the Opening Day roster. The Yankees treated him like a veteran reliever with a spot locked up. He came out of the bullpen early in Grapefruit League games so he could a) face big league hitters before wholesale changes, and b) get his work in and head home. Wilson threw nine innings in Spring Training. He allowed two runs on three hits in two walks in nine innings, striking out eleven. Pretty much no one talked about him. Too much other stuff was going on.

Early Control Problems

Like most other relievers, Wilson doesn’t have the greatest control in the world. He’d probably be a starter — which he was his entire minor league career — if he could throw strikes more consistently. Wilson had an 11.7% walk rate last year and an 11.6% walk rate in his minor league career. Walks have been an issue.


Wilson made his Yankees debut on Opening Day. He entered the top of the ninth with the Yankees down five, and his outing went walk, strikeout, walk, ground out, walk before being pulled with the bases loaded and two outs. Only eleven of his 24 pitches were strikes. It was not a good first impression. Bullpen roles outside the eighth and ninth inning were still unsettled and Wilson didn’t endear himself with that outing.

Four days later Wilson retired all five batters he faced, but the next day he allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning, walking a batter and throwing only five of 13 pitches for strikes. In his next appearance, he inherited runners on second and third with one out in the sixth inning of a tie game against the Orioles. Wilson allowed both runners to score on a Delmon Young single and a Chris Davis double. (He was later charged with two runs of his own.)

Understandably, Girardi lost some confidence in Wilson. Actually, since it was so early in the season, he probably didn’t have any confidence in him yet, and Wilson wasn’t helping his case. Four of Wilson’s next five appearances were true left-on-left matchups situations. He faced exactly one batter all four times, and, to his credit, he retired all four. In the one non-matchup outing, Wilson got four outs in a game the Yankees were leading by six.

May was a struggle for Wilson as well. He made a dozen appearances, allowed multiple runs in three of them, and opponents hit .294/.368/.412 against him in 8.2 innings. Wilson struck out six and walked three. On May 24th, Wilson was sitting on a 5.79 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 14 innings. His strikeout rate was good (21.7%) but he walked too many batters (13.3%). A 50.0% ground ball rate and no homers allowed led to that shiny FIP.

The first seven weeks of Wilson’s tenure in pinstripes did not go too well. He had not settled into any kind of role aside from “guy we try to stay away from in close games” and he wasn’t pitching all that well. The Yankees had Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller dominating the late innings, and Chasen Shreve helped picked up the slack, so Wilson’s struggles weren’t a huge blow to the team. They needed him to be better though.

The New Eighth Inning Guy

After allowing two runs on three hits in one-third of an inning on May 24th, Girardi stayed away from Wilson in close games. Five of his next seven appearances came with the score separated by at least three runs, and the other two were a quick lefty specialist appearance and an extra innings outing, an extra innings outing in which this happened:

Wilson pitched well, allowed three hits and and a walk in six scoreless innings during those seven appearances. It was a step in the right direction, if nothing else.

The Yankees placed Miller on the DL on June 11th, which threw a wrench into the bullpen. Betances moved into the closer’s role and suddenly Girardi didn’t have a set eighth inning guy, something he values very highly. Wilson got his Big Chance three days later, when he entered a game with a runner on first and no outs in the seventh inning. The Yankees were up 5-3 against the Orioles and Wilson retired all six batters he faced, three with strikeouts.

That outing — of which no video exists, sadly — didn’t quite put Wilson in the Circle of Trust™, but it earned him some more opportunities. Five more scoreless outings followed and Wilson settled in as the eighth inning guy. Shreve was pitching the seventh, Wilson the eighth, and Betances the ninth. While Miller was sidelined, Wilson allowed one run on four hits and three walks in 9.1 innings. He struck out 14. (The one run was a Mike Trout solo homer. It happens.)

The Seventh Inning Guy

Most relievers gradually work their way towards the back of the bullpen. Wilson did the opposite. Miller’s return meant Wilson went from eighth inning guy in June to seventh inning guy the rest of the season. Miller returned on July 8th, and from that point through the end of the season, Wilson pitched to a 3.23 ERA (2.16 FIP) in 30.2 innings. He struck out 37 and walked six. The guy who walked three batters in his first two-thirds of an inning of the season walked only six in his final 30.2 innings of the season.

Wilson’s best — or at least his subjectively most important — outing of the season came on September 19th against the Mets. The Yankees were barely hanging on in the AL East race and they still needed to clinch a wildcard spot, so every win was crucial. The Yankees led 5-0 but the Mets loaded the bases for the middle of the lineup with one out in the sixth. Wilson came in and struck out two to end the inning. He struck out the first two batters in the seventh as well.

Between the shaky start and the strong finish, Wilson posted a 3.10 ERA (2.69 FIP) in 61 innings across a team leading 74 appearances in 2015. (Well, he tied for Betances for the team lead in appearances, anyway.) His 27.1% strikeout rate was a career high and his 8.2% walk rate was a career low. Wilson also managed career low ground ball (43.8%) and homer (0.44 HR/9) rates even though his HR/GB% rate (6.8%) was in line with his career average (6.7%). The trick: don’t allow the ball to be put in play. Strikeouts are cool.

Also, Wilson was much more than a lefty specialist. He was a full inning pitcher for much of the season, especially after Miller landed on the DL. Wilson held lefties to a .236/.337/.292 (.290 wOBA) batting line with a 22.9% strikeout rate. Righties? They hit .213/.270/.318 (.261 wOBA) with a 29.2% strikeout rate. Pretty great. It’s pretty easy for managers to shoehorn a guy into a left-on-left role, but Wilson isn’t Clay Rapada or someone like that. He’s a capable reliever against all hitters.

Wilson faced four batters in the wildcard game and got four outs. He walked the first man he faced but erased the runner with a double play. Wilson entered in the sixth, an inning earlier than usual, which was Girardi’s plan. He wanted 12 outs from his big three relievers in the win or go home game. Wilson did his part. Too bad the offense didn’t do anything.

The Cervelli-for-Wilson trade is one of those rare deals where both sides got what they wanted out of it. The Pirates probably got more than what they wanted, really. Cervelli stepped in as their everyday catcher and had a great season. Wilson emerged as a late-inning reliever for the Yankees while Murphy played well as the backup catcher. All trades should work out this well.

Lefty Heat

Miller throws a mid-90s fastball and a ton of sliders. Wilson is very different. He threw a fastball roughly 93% of the time last season (93.48%, to be exact). His fastball averaged 95.2 mph — PitchFX says he topped out at 98.63 mph in 2015 — this past season, which was the second highest average fastball velocity among lefties (starters or relievers). Only the inhuman Aroldis Chapman (99.4 mph) threw harder among southpaws.

Wilson does not throw just one fastball, however. He throws three different types, and that’s what allows him to be successful. He’s not just out there pumping four-seamer after four-seamer. Wilson throws a sinker and cutter in addition to his four-seamer, so he has something that goes down, something that cuts in to righties/away from lefties, and something that stays true. Flip a few breaking balls and that’s enough to keep hitters off balance.

It’s weird to see a pitcher throw fastball after fastball, even a reliever, but Wilson did it this season and had a lot of success. They were different types of fastballs though, and when you throw that hard and are only throwing one inning at a time, you don’t need much else.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Wilson is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter — MLBTR projects a $1.3M salary in 2016 — and by now we know no player is exempt from trade discussions. Murphy was traded earlier this week and Miller’s name has popped up in rumors the last few days. Right now, Wilson is again penciled in as the seventh inning guy next season, and the caveat is there is still a lot of offseason remaining.

Mailbag: Plouffe, Campos, Shields, Judge, Sanchez, Judge

Fourteen questions in this week’s mailbag. There were a bunch of “what about this guy for the fourth outfielder spot?” questions sitting in the inbox that went straight to the trash thanks to the Aaron Hicks trade. Anyway, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send questions.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Alex asks: Could Trevor Plouffe be the Zobrist-esque player the Yankees want? Twins have four players for three spots with the addition of Byung-Ho Park, and they’re down an outfielder after Torii Hunter retired. Gardy & prospects for Plouffe, then sign a big OF. Thoughts?

Plouffe’s days as a utility guy are over. He hasn’t played anywhere other than first and third base (and DH) since 2012. Back in the day he played the corner outfield spots and even a little middle infield, but yeah, it’s been three years since he’s done that. Plouffe is what he is at this point …

Trevor Plouffe

… and that’s a solid right-handed corner infielder. Casey McGehee with power. (For what it’s worth, some Twins fans I know say Plouffe isn’t as good in the field as the stats indicate.) MLBTR projects Plouffe to get $7.7M through arbitration this offseason and that’s pretty pricey for a guy with no obvious place to play, right? He’d be a part-time third baseman, a part-time first baseman, and a part-time DH with the Yankees.

If the Yankees weren’t tied down with Alex Rodriguez at DH and didn’t have Greg Bird sitting in Triple-A, Plouffe would make more sense. But now, with no real versatility, I’m not sure were he fits on the roster. That’s an expensive part-time player. Also, there’s no chance I’d trade Brett Gardner for a guy who’s a year away from being a non-tender candidate. (And besides, the Twins have plenty of outfielders. That’s why Hicks was expendable.)

Torrey asks: Even though he hasn’t pitched above A ball, do you think Campos is a candidate for the bullpen this season? Is that his upside now?

I do. I don’t think the Yankees would have re-added Vicente Campos to the 40-man roster if they didn’t consider him a 2016 big league option. The 40-man is too tight right now to tie up another spot with a pitcher who won’t be able to help next season. (Domingo German is already filling that spot, and Rookie Davis figures to join him soon since he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible.)

Campos had starter stuff — mid-90s heater, slurvy breaking ball, changeup — and command before getting hurt, but he’s had all sorts of elbow problems in recent years and lost a lot of development time the last few years. He threw only 167 total innings from 2012-15. The Yankees figure to keep Campos in a starting role in the minors just to get him innings, but I think his ultimate role is reliever now. He’s had too many injuries.

Here’s a fun comp: Joakim Soria. Soria’s another guy who had a starter’s repertoire and command but couldn’t stay healthy. He moved to the bullpen, continued to throw all his pitches like a starter, and dominated. Wade Davis is another guy who throws all his pitches in relief. Maybe Campos works out of the bullpen that way.

Simon asks: Does the MLB do sign and trades like they do in the NBA? I don’t think they do? How come they don’t do that?

There’s no need. I don’t know a ton about the NBA, but my understanding is the sign-and-trade move is all about the salary cap. The cap rules say you can re-sign your own player to a contract larger than the maximum he can receive from another team as a free agent. It’s a way for the player to get more money and his former team to get something in return. (Right? Correct me if I’m wrong.) There’s no need for that in MLB. There’s no cap or contract limits. Teams can give free agents whatever they want.

Paul asks: Is there a future Hall of Famer on the roster right now? CC and Beltran are the only ones I think have a chance and CC’s hanging by a thread.

I don’t think so, no. A-Rod obviously has a first ballot Hall of Fame resume, but he’s never getting in. CC Sabathia was on the Hall of Fame track until injuries set in these last few years. I suppose there’s still a chance he could salvage his case with three or four solid years, but it’s hard to see that happening. Carlos Beltran is the best Hall of Fame candidate on the roster and I think he’s borderline. He’s one of those guys who will hang around on the ballot a long time and people will debate each year. My hunch is Beltran doesn’t get in, though I do think his chances improved when the BBWAA got rid of the legacy voters last year.

Jason asks: Is it possible that Cashman refusing to trade any top prospects at the deadline, continuously making it clear he does not want to move any of them, and even giving Severino and Bird extended playing time in the MLB this season, is just one, or at least part of one, very long drawn out plan to raise their trade value for a run at a big trade?

Ah yes, the long con. I don’t think this is the plan though. That’s way too risky. Luis Severino could get hurt at any moment and Bird might get exposed as a platoon DH with more playing time. I sincerely believe they wanted to incorporate these players into the big league roster and build around them going forward. That said, if the right trade offer comes along, I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to trade either (or both) Severino or Bird. Would Brian Cashman really say no to Severino and Bird for, say, Bryce Harper? Nope.

Shields. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Shields. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Matt asks: Jacoby Ellsbury for James Shields. The Padres wanna move him, they need an outfielder, opens the door for Heyward/Upton in left field, thoughts?

The Yankees would have to eat money. The Padres are trying to trim payroll this offseason — hence yesterday’s Joaquin Benoit for two low level prospects trade — and there’s a ~$45M difference between the Ellsbury and Shields contracts. (Shields’ deal is heavily backloaded. He made $10M this season and gets $21M in each of the next three seasons.) I’d make that trade in an instant if I were the Yankees, even with the understanding Shields is probably a mid-rotation innings eater these days, not an ace. Bad contract for bad contract, but Shields’ bad contract ends two years earlier, it clears an outfield spot, and adds a much-needed innings dude for the rotation. I have to think San Diego would need a nice chunk of money to make that deal.

Mike asks: Is there any chance the Yankees sign Shawn Kelley again? Is Mike Mussina a HOF’er and does he get in this year?

Yes there’s a chance they re-sign Kelley — he had a 2.45 ERA (2.57 FIP) in 51.1 innings around back trouble in 2015 — but I think the Yankees are more inclined to give their young righties a chance first. Maybe if Kelley’s market doesn’t develop as hoped this winter, they swoop in and sign him in January. Otherwise I think they plan to give guys like Branden Pinder and Nick Rumbelow a longer look in 2016.

As for Mussina, I do think he’s a Hall of Famer but I don’t think he has much of a chance of getting in this year. His voting percentage went from 20.3% two years ago to 24.6% last year. He’s got another eight years on the ballot, which remains overstuffed because most voters aren’t voting for performance-enhancing drug guys. I don’t think Mussina is a slam dunk Hall of Famer. You can definitely make a case he isn’t. I think he is worthy though and yet I can’t see him getting in this year. Moose will have to wait a while.

Peter asks: Is Zobrist still a viable SS option? If so then doesn’t signing him solve most of the position player needs? He can rotate into 2B/RF and be the backup SS, covering the 3 most upgradeable positions with one player.

Ben Zobrist did not play any shortstop last season but he started 23 games (and played 31 games) at the position for the Rays in 2014, so it’s not so far in the rear-view mirror that it’s a non-option. I think you could rely on him as a backup at the position, but if there’s an injury to Didi Gregorius, you’d probably rather run someone else out there on everyday basis. Signing Zobrist could conceivably allow you cut Brendan Ryan — Zobrist becomes the everyday second baseman and backup shortstop with Dustin Ackley or Rob Refsnyder the backup at second — and free up a bench spot.

Matthews asks: Last week’s mailbag had a question regarding what you would consider a fair deal for Starlin Castro. From my perspective, Baez is the more interesting target (despite the high strike out total). What sort of package do you think it would take to land him? Given Epstein-Ellsbury have history from Boston, and the fact that they don’t currently have a true center fielder/leadoff man since Fowler is a free agent, could we try center a deal around Ellsbury (with cash) plus other pieces?

I think Theo Epstein & Co. have reached the point where they know they can’t keep everyone. With Addison Russell locked in at short, there’s only one spot (second base) for Castro and Javier Baez. I also think they’re in a tough spot because they’re not going to get a huge return for either guy at this point. Their stock is down. I also think the Cubs have some fear they’ll trade Baez and he’ll turn into a 40+ homer shortstop for someone else.

Anyway, am I pro “get rid of Ellsbury and his contract,” and I’d trade him for Baez (or Castro) straight up. I don’t think the Cubbies would do it unless the Yankees kicked in a whole bunch of money, which sort of defeats the purpose. Chicago has shopped Baez for aces — David Price and Cole Hamels, reportedly — so they’re shooting for the stars. This isn’t a “Michael Pineda and a prospect for Baez” situation. It’ll cost something that hurts to get him.

There’s a decent chance you get zero return from Baez because he has no plan at the plate at all, but it’s legit superstar upside. I’d definitely take a shot on him at second given New York’s internal options.

dfed87 asks: With the news that the Mariners want Gardner and the Yankees like Paxton, I have to ask, wouldn’t they be better off trying to sign Brett Anderson? They are both close to the same age, both could fall apart if you stared too long, and you get to keep your best trade chip.

I think that’s a reasonable alternative, yeah. Anderson will cost you a draft pick and a decent sized contract — he’s going to take the largest offer after all those years of injuries, right? — with no guarantee of better health. Paxton’s appeal is his four years of affordable team control, upside as a hard-throwing southpaw, and youth. (Anderson is only nine months older than Paxton, however.) He’s worth acquiring in my opinion. I just wouldn’t trade Gardner for him. My concern with Anderson is the injury history, and at this point the Yankees need a guy they can count on for innings. They have enough dudes with health concerns.

Judge ... and Sanchez! (Rob Carr/Getty)
Judge … and Sanchez! (Rob Carr/Getty)

Brian asks: Could the Murphy for Hicks deal be a precursor to a deal involving Judge (not Gardner)? If so, what type of return might he command?

That would really surprise me. I think the Yankees would much sooner trade Gardner than Aaron Judge. They seem very focused on getting younger and Judge is a big part of that. Lets’ talk this one out for fun though. Judge is a top 30-ish prospect in MLB right now. You could argue higher or lower, but top 30 or so sounds good enough to me. Here’s what some recent top 30-ish prospects (per Baseball America) netted in trades in recent years:

  • No. 34, 2015: Matt Wisler, headliner in a package for three years of Craig Kimbrel.
  • No. 30, 2014: Andrew Heaney, headliner in a package for four years of Dee Gordon and one year of Dan Haren
  • No. 22, 2013: Mike Olt, headliner in a package for a half-season of Matt Garza.
  • No. 28, 2012: Wil Myers, headliner in a package for two years of Shields and four years of Davis.
  • No. 31, 2011: Casey Kelly, headliner in a package for one year of Adrian Gonzalez.

You’d like to make a Heaney or Myers trade, or at least a Wisler trade. A Kelly trade could work — Gonzalez was a monster back then — depending on which impending free agent you get. One year of, say, Stephen Strasburg or Jose Bautista would work just fine. (Obviously Bautista’s not happening.) An Olt trade? Nope. That’s bad even though Olt flamed out. Prospect rankings aren’t a great way to gauge value but they work fine for this exercise. Those five give us an idea of what Judge may be able to fetch in a trade right now.

Tom asks: What is better for Sanchez’s development – Playing once a week in the bigs and learning hitting from A-Rod and defense from McCann and Girardi or playing everyday in Triple-A?

Personally, I think Gary Sanchez is better off playing every day in Triple-A to continue working on his defense. I don’t matter though. All that matters is what the Yankees think. They were prepared to use Bird as a part-timer late in the season — Mark Teixeira‘s injury turned Bird into an everyday guy — and may be willing to do it with Sanchez. There are ways to work on catching without playing games — catching bullpens, mostly — but there’s no real way to simulate game action. I think the best thing for Sanchez is playing every day in Triple-A while the best thing for the Yankees is using him as McCann’s backup. Make sense?

Jacob asks: How similar of an offensive player is Aaron Hicks as compared to Brett Gardner? Is he the same scrappy patient hitter?

No, they aren’t all that similar. They do have similar strikeout and walk tendencies — Hicks has career 22.2 K% and 10.1 BB% while Gardner is at 20.8 K% and 9.3 BB% the last three years — but Hicks has much more over-the-fence power. He hit eleven homers in 390 plate appearances this season. Gardner hit five in 569 plate appearances at age 26. I wouldn’t call Hicks a scrappy leadoff type, at least not to the extent Gardner is. He’s got some pop and is more of a potential 20-20 guy than the 8-40 guy Gardner was in his mid-to-late-20s.

Rich asks: Last year there was some references to Omar Minaya possibly joining the front office (a move I would love). Hearing anything this year? I think he has an eye to see talent and asst gm title waiting for him!

Nothing at all. The Yankees were discussing adding Minaya to the front office last winter, it didn’t happen, then he left his post as the Padres vice president of baseball operations for a job with the MLBPA. He’s now a special advisor to union chief Tony Clark. Minaya made some bad moves as Mets GM a few years ago, no doubt about it, but he has a great reputation for his scouting and player evaluation acumen. Based on the little I know, Minaya would be a tremendous asset in the front office, as long as he’s not the guy calling the shots.

Brian McCann wins Silver Slugger at catcher

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Silver Slugger awards, which are given to the best offensive players at each position, were announced Thursday night. Brian McCann took home Silver Slugger for AL catcher. It’s the sixth of his career and first in pinstripes. He was the only Yankees player to take home a Silver Slugger. Here are all the winners.

McCann, 31, hit .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) with a career-high 26 home runs this season, his second in New York. He led all catchers in dingers and his 94 RBI were one behind Buster Posey for the catcher lead, which is pretty much all it takes to win a Silver Slugger. The winners are selected by coaches and managers around the league.

Alex Rodriguez, who lost out to Prince Fielder for the Comeback Player of the Year award, lost out to Kendrys Morales for the Silver Slugger. Aside from A-Rod and McCann, the Yankees didn’t have any good Silver Slugger candidates. I guess Mark Teixeira, but, you know, Miguel Cabrera exists.

The four major awards — MVP, Cy Young, Manager and Rookie of the Year — will be announced next week, but no Yankees are among the finalists. No Yankees won a Gold Glove either. So I guess McCann’s Silver Slugger is the only award the Yankees will take home this year. No biggie.

Update: Forgot Andrew Miller won the Mariano Rivera Award as the league’s best reliever. So two awards this year.

Thursday Night Open Thread

The GM Meetings ended today and it was a pretty busy week. The Yankees made two trades — one significant, one not so significant — and there was an awful lot of rumors and hot stove chatter to come out of Boca Raton. That’s the way things are now, I guess. Every little nugget gets posted somewhere. Still another three months until Spring Training, folks.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Bills and Jets are the Thursday NFL game (that should be fun, eh?), plus all five local basketball and hockey teams are in action. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Brian Cashman on starting Greg Bird in Triple-A: “That’s the optimal”

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

I wouldn’t call it a problem, but one of the biggest questions heading into the 2016 season is how Greg Bird fits the roster. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base, Alex Rodriguez at DH, and another DH candidate in Carlos Beltran. Bird is a first baseman (and DH) only, and his lack of versatility doesn’t fit the bench.

“That’s the optimal,” said Brian Cashman to Ken Davidoff and Bryan Hoch when asked about Bird starting next season in Triple-A. “Not for Bird, but optimally period, that would be the best. Currently, Tex is the better player … If Alex went down, we could swing Carlos over from right field to DH … Currently (Bird is) blocked by some pretty significant players. It creates a great dynamic.”

That is basically CashmanSpeak for “we just have to wait for Teixeira or A-Rod to get hurt.” He can’t come out and say it, but I’m sure that’s what the Yankees are thinking. Stash Bird in Triple-A for a few weeks, let him work mostly on his defense, then call him up when the need inevitably rises. Teixeira and Rodriguez aren’t all that durable these days, after all.

Bird, 23, hit .291/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with eleven home runs in 46 games with the Yankees this past season after taking over at first base following Teixeira injury. He really struggled against lefties in September and was passable at first base, but not an asset. Bird is very clearly the heir apparent to Teixeira, whose eight-year contract expires next winter.

Like I said, this isn’t a problem. Have too many good players is a good thing. Stashing Bird in Triple-A is a short-term measure, that’s all. It’s temporary. We’ll see him again at some point next year. It’s inevitable.

Rosenthal: D’Backs among teams to inquire about Andrew Miller

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Earlier this week we heard the Yankees are “shopping everyone,” including Andrew Miller, and now Ken Rosenthal reports the Diamondbacks are among the teams to inquire about the lefty closer. Talks are in the extremely preliminary phases — Rosenthal says the two sides haven’t exchanged names yet.

The D’Backs are a weird operation. They’ve been .500 or worse the last four years and they’ve made moves that send the message they’re both going for it (adding Jeremy Hellickson) and rebuilding (trading Miguel Montero, etc). Arizona reportedly tried hard to land Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline this season, so I guess their interest in Miller is not surprising.

Rosenthal mentions the D’Backs have some young starters and infielders who could interest the Yankees, though that is his own speculation. That makes sense though, right? The Yankees could use young arms — like every team! — and there’s an opening at second base, at least until Rob Refsnyder proves otherwise. Those positions figure to be the points of emphasis this winter.

Looking over Arizona’s 40-man roster, I’m not sure which young starters fit aside from righty Chase Anderson (4.30 ERA and 4.14 FIP in 2015) and lefty Robbie Ray (3.52 ERA and 3.53 FIP). Righty Archie Bradley is the big name but he threw only 65 ineffective innings this past season due to a shoulder strain. The Yankees are all about buying low on talented guys, but a pitcher with shoulder trouble is a different animal than a guy underperforming.

The only two infielders who stand out are third baseman Jake Lamb and second baseman/third baseman Brandon Drury. Lamb is a personal favorite, I think that dude is going to mash long-term (92 wRC+ in 107 games in 2015), and Drury’s an interesting guy with great minor league stats and a scouting report that doesn’t quite match up. He’s Refsnyderian, in a way.

Jon Heyman says the Yankees recently asked one team for three MLB ready young players in exchange for Miller — that seems like a perfectly reasonable opening ask to me, starting negotiating from there — which makes sense. They don’t want prospects. They want players who can help right away. The D’Backs have some interesting young starters and infielders — what about Ray plus Lamb or Drury? is that in the ballpark for an elite closer signed to setup man dollars for the next three years? — and I could see at least the makings of a match there.

The Yankees have limited flexibility this offseason, both in terms of roster spots and payroll, and the common phrase so far has been “open to anything.” We’ve heard Brian Cashman say that a few times already. We saw firsthand how dynamic the Miller-Dellin Betances tandem can be, though I definitely think there is some merit to moving Miller. He threw more sliders (54.1%) than fastballs (45.9%) in 2015 and missed a month with a forearm problem. That’s a red flag.

Miller does not have a no-trade clause and literally every team in baseball is looking to add an elite reliever this winter, even the Royals. The D’Backs are one possible trade partner but far from the only one. With Darren O’Day representing the best reliever on the free agent market, the Yankees have pretty great leverage. They can ask a lot for Miller because there are few alternatives out there.

The New Old Backup Catcher [2015 Season Review]


Last offseason the Yankees reached a breaking point with their catchers. Brian McCann was locked into the starting job, and they had three viable candidates for the backup spot: Francisco Cervelli, John Ryan Murphy, and Austin Romine. Cervelli was the incumbent, Murphy was as big league ready as he was going to get, and Romine was out of minor league options. Something had to give.

The Yankees acted early in the offseason, trading Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson one year ago today. And with that trade, they gave Murphy a rather large vote of confidence. Cervelli was quite productive as a backup, at least when healthy, and keeping him for depth would have been completely understandable. Instead, they opted to make a change, used Cervelli to bolster the bullpen, and handed the reins over to Murphy.

A Competition, But Not Really

Although Murphy was obviously the favorite, the Yankees held one of those rigged competitions in Spring Training to determine the backup catcher. Murphy and Romine were the headliners, and others like Gary Sanchez and Eddy Rodriguez were said to be in the mix too. Murphy appeared in 19 Grapefruit League games and hit .238/.304/.310. Romine appeared in 17 games and hit .171/.216/.200.

Ask the Yankees and they’ll tell you those combined 83 plate appearances were used to determine their backup catcher for Opening Day. But we all knew it was going to be Murphy. He jumped Romine on the depth chart, so much so that when Cervelli got hurt last year, it was Murphy who got the call, not Romine even though he spent almost the entire 2013 season as Chris Stewart’s backup. Murphy “won” the job, then Romine was put on waivers and was dropped from the 40-man roster.

A First Half to Forget

The life of a young backup catcher is not easy, especially when you’re stuck behind a veteran like McCann. You’re used to playing everyday and now all of a sudden you’re playing once or twice a week. The adjustment from starter to part-timer can be difficult. Being a bench player ain’t easy, you know.

Murphy got his first start of the new season in the third game, catching CC Sabathia and facing lefty Daniel Norris. He went 2-for-4 with two doubles in the loss. His next start came two days later, after McCann caught that 19-inning game against the Red Sox, and that was the start of Murphy’s first half swoon.

From that game through the end of May, Murphy went 8-for-39 (.205) in 19 games, though he did record three doubles and a triple. June was better — 9-for-29 (.310) with a double in 12 games — and after limited time in early-July, Murphy cruised into the All-Star break hitting .247/.286/.325 (63 wRC+) in 29 games and 85 plate appearances. Meh.

A Second Half to Remember

After the All-Star break, the Yankees seemed to make a concerted effort to pick their spots with Murphy. He essentially became a platoon bat, starting against most left-handers to give McCann a rest. Five of his first seven starts of the second half were against southpaws, and the Yankees were so committed to this that Murphy even started back-to-back games against lefties on July 31st and August 1st. McCann actually sat two straight games.

The reward? Murphy went 11-for-27 (.407) with two doubles and a home run in those seven starts. He struck out only four times. The home run was a big one too. It was a go-ahead three-run home run over the high wall in right-center field at Target Field. Naturally, it came off a lefty, Glen Perkins.

Murphy continued to start against most lefties in the second half and continued to hit. He went deep twice in the span of three starts in early-September, first taking Henry Owens deep, then getting Wei-Yin Chen. After going 9-for-33 (.273) with those two homers in September, Murphy finished the second half with a .308/.368/.487 (134 wRC+) batting line in 25 games and 87 plate appearances.

As the team the Yankees really struggled against lefties down the stretch. McCann actually had a decent year against southpaws (108 wRC+), so Joe Girardi looked for ways to get him and Murphy into the lineup at the same time. With Alex Rodriguez tying up the DH spot, the Yankees had Murphy work out at first base at the very end of the season. He’s a former infielder — a third baseman, mostly — so it made sense to try it.

Murphy never did get into a game at first base, but the fact the team was considering him at the position showed how much they wanted his bat in the lineup against left-handers. He was behind the plate when the Yankees clinched their first postseason berth in two years, then stole the show during the postgame celebration.

There was talk the Yankees may start Murphy over McCann against the left-handed Dallas Keuchel in the wildcard game, but that didn’t happen. The point stands though. The Yankees viewed Murphy as a weapon against lefties.

All told, the 24-year-old Murphy hit .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+) with three home runs in 172 plate appearances across 67 games. That includes a .266/.314/.456 (108 wRC+) line in 86 plate appearances against lefties and a decent .289/.341/.355 (91 wRC+) line in 86 plate appearances against righties. Among the 54 catchers to bat at least 150 times in 2015, Murphy ranked 19th with that 99 wRC+. Pretty cool for a backup.

Defense Not First

When the Yankees drafted Murphy back in 2009, he was relatively new to catching, so his first few seasons of pro ball were spent learning the position. He made some tremendous strides from 2011-14, enough that the Yankees were comfortable with him at the MLB level. They do value catcher defense highly, after all.

The numbers say Murphy was an average-ish defensive catcher this season. He threw out eight of 29 attempted base-stealers, or 28%, which is basically league average. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus say he was an average pitch-framer. His rate of 13.8 innings per passed pitch was actually much worse than the league average (20.9), though he once did this:

John Ryan Murphy block

Average throw-out rate plus average framing plus below-average blocking equals a bit below average overall? I guess so. Defensive stats are sketchy, especially for catchers. I thought Murphy was good defender based on the eye test, though what do I know. He certainly wasn’t a liability. I think we can agree on that. As far as backup catchers go, it’s really hard to find fault with anything Murphy did in 2015.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Murphy is a trade chip this offseason. I know that because the Yankees traded him to the Twins for Aaron Hicks yesterday. I figured he would be back as the backup catcher but a trade was never out of the question, obviously. So long, Serial Killer John Ryan Murphy. It’s been real.