Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

Adams. (The Citizens' Voice)
Adams. (The Citizens’ Voice)

Now that the 2017season is over, the crew at Baseball Prospectus is storming through their annual look at the top ten prospects (plus more) in each farm system. Yesterday they hit the Yankees. From what I can tell, the entire article is free. You don’t need a subscription to read the commentary.

“A year after being deadline sellers, the Yankees thinned out their farm with graduations and a pair of July 31st buys. The system is down a little, but has an elite 1-2 punch at the top and a bonanza of high-upside teenagers further down the organizational totem pole,” said the write-up. Here’s the top ten:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Estevan Florial
  3. RHP Chance Adams
  4. LHP Justus Sheffield
  5. RHP Albert Abreu
  6. 3B Miguel Andujar
  7. RHP Domingo Acevedo
  8. RHP Domingo German
  9. RHP Matt Sauer
  10. RHP Luis Medina

Both OF Clint Frazier and UTIL Tyler Wade exhausted their rookie eligibility this season, which is why they’re not in the top ten. Frazier exceeded the 130 at-bat rookie limit (he finished with 134) while Wade accrued too much service time. The rookie limit is 45 days outside the September roster expansion period. Wade finished with 50 such days, by my unofficial count. Anyway, some thoughts.

1. A year ago at this time the farm system was very position player heavy. The top four and six of the top nine prospects in the system were position players, per Baseball Prospectus. Six of my top eight were position players. Now Baseball Prospectus has seven pitchers among the top ten prospects in the organization. Furthermore, six prospects in the 11-20 range are pitchers as well. That’s a lot of quality arms! And the Yankees are going to need them too. Pitchers break down, they fail to develop a third pitch, etc. There are so many things that can derail development. Plus young pitching is the best currency in baseball. It can get you almost anything you want at the trade deadline. We could start to see the system strength shift from position players to pitchers earlier this year. Now this is damn close to a pitcher first farm system.

2. Speaking of pitchers, where’s RHP Jorge Guzman? He’s not mentioned in the Baseball Prospectus write-up at all. Not in the top ten, not in the next ten, nothing. In the comments it was explained the Yankees have a deep system and Guzman essentially got squeezed out by the numbers crunch, though I’m not sure I agree with him not being a top 20 prospect in the system. Heck, he’s in my top ten right now. When you have Medina in the top ten and RHP Roansy Contreras in the next ten, it’s tough to understand why Guzman isn’t there. He’s a more polished version of those guys, relatively speaking. Perhaps his age is the problem? Guzman will turn 22 in January and he’s yet to pitch in a full season league. That happens when you don’t sign until 18. I dunno. They don’t check IDs on the mound. If you can get outs, it doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 31 or 41. Guzman’s stuff is as good as anyone’s in the system and he made great strides with his command and secondary pitches in 2017. Seems like a top ten prospect to me.

3. OF Pablo Olivares got some love. He’s been a little sleeper favorite of mine the last two years. The 19-year-old struggled in his quick stint with Low-A Charleston last season, but he .311/.420/.424 (149 wRC+) with 10.7% walks and 13.4% strikeouts in complex ball from 2016-17. Olivares is one of those guys who does a little of everything but nothing exceptionally well. “I project him to at least average across the board, led by a future 55 hit tool … (When) patient, he took walks and drove pitches to center and oppo. He’s bigger than his listed 6-foot, 160 pounds (likely closer to 170), and while just an average runner, his reads and instincts in center are good enough to stick with an average arm. With maturity and some added strength, he at least has a chance to see 50 power,” said the write-up, which included Olivares as a prospect in the 11-20 range of the farm system. I like him. I think he’ll establish himself as a no-doubt top 15 prospect in the system in 2018. There’s a “Thairo Estrada but an outfielder” quality to Olivares.

4. My favorite feature of Baseball Prospectus’ annual prospect write-ups are the “top talents 25 and under” lists. The ten best players in the organization no older than 25, basically. Straightforward, right? New York’s list has Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino in the 1-2-3 spots in that order, then slide the top ten prospects behind them. Noticeably absent: Greg Bird. Hmmm. I assume the injuries are the reason Bird was omitted from the top 25 and under talents — “As per usual, his future outlook depends almost entirely on his health,” said the write-up — but even considering that, I still feel like he belongs in the top ten somewhere. Why would injuries knock Bird out of the top ten but not, say, Abreu? He had injury problems of his own this year and he’s never pitched above High-A. Bird is quite risky given his injury history. He’s also shown he can be a productive big leaguer when healthy. Not sure I agree with knocking him down the list below prospects, who themselves are inherently risky.

Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.

The Official RAB 2017-18 Offseason Plan

"Wait, what did that idiot at RAB say we should do?" (Presswire)
“Wait, what did that idiot at RAB say we should do?!?” (Presswire)

One week ago yesterday, the Astros clinched the first World Series championship in franchise history. There are now three months of offseason to go before Spring Training begins. Free agents are free to sign with any team as of Tuesday morning, though it’ll be a few weeks before the hot stove really picks up. That’s how the offseason usually goes.

So, with the offseason still young, it’s time to put together our official RAB Offseason Plan. Last year’s plan was dumb. Among my moves: signing Mark Melancon, trading Luis Severino (and more!) for Sonny Gray, and trading Brett Gardner for Jaime Garcia. Why does anyone read this website? On the bright side, I nailed the whole “Gray and Garcia could be fits for the Yankees” thing. Yay?

Last offseason we had to make some assumptions about payroll. That is not the case this year. We know the Yankees are going to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold in 2018. They wanted to get under the threshold a few years ago, but it didn’t happen. The Yankees won’t miss out on another opportunity. Our payroll limit for next year is $197M. That part is easy. No more assumptions.

One thing I will not do in this post is hire a new manager and coaching staff. Evaluating a manager — or a pitching coach, or a third base coach, or a bullpen coach — is basically impossible as an outsider. I’m not even going to attempt to cobble together a coaching staff. It’s a waste of energy. That’s all I have to say about the coaching staff. Let’s get on with the offseason plan, shall we?

Rule 5 Draft Protection

Not the sexiest place to start, but a place to start. The Rule 5 Draft protection deadline is the next upcoming offseason deadline anyway. The Yankees got a head start on their Rule 5 Draft protection this year by calling up Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade at midseason. There are still several others who need to be added though. Here’s my protection list:

  • Add to 40-man: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Thairo Estrada, Billy McKinney, Gleyber Torres
  • Leave exposed in Rule 5 Draft: Abi Avelino, Nestor Cortes, Rashad Crawford, J.P. Feyereisen, Mike Ford, Anyelo Gomez, Johnny Loaisiga, Alex Palma, Stephen Tarpley

There seems to be some confusion about Gleyber’s Rule 5 Draft status. Some are saying he’s not eligible and others (me) are saying he is. Rule 5 Draft status can be confusing for international players. In this case, we have an easy reference point. Mets shortstop Amed Rosario signed at 16 on July 2nd, 2012. He was added the 40-man roster last offseason because he was Rule 5 Draft eligible. Torres signed at 16 on July 2nd, 2013, so he should be Rule 5 Draft this offseason. Rosario is the benchmark here. Gleyber’s going on the 40-man roster.

Of course Gleyber gets protected. (Scranton Times Tribune)
Of course Gleyber gets protected. (Scranton Times Tribune)

Abreu and Acevedo are two of the best pitching prospects in the system, so they’re getting protected. Teams are more willing to grab a Single-A kid and stash him on the MLB roster all season no matter how poorly he performs (coughPadrescough), which is why Abreu has to be protected. In the past, he’d be someone you could leave unprotected because you know he’d be coming back even if he did get picked. McKinney seemed to come into his own this season and after having success at Triple-A, he’s prime Rule 5 Draft fodder. Can’t lose him for nothing. He gets protected. Estrada is a personal favorite, but beyond that, he’s a strong defensive middle infielder who can hit a little, and had success at Double-A in 2017. That’s someone I want to keep. Give me those up-the-middle athletes.

Among the players I’m leaving exposed, the only tough-ish decision for me was Johnny Lasagna. He’s been getting a lot of hype lately, but, at the end of the day, he has a lengthy injury history and he’s thrown exactly 2.1 innings above the short season leagues. If a team wants to pop Loaisiga in the Rule 5 Draft and see whether he can stick next year, let them. Odds are he’ll be offered back at some point. Feyereisen and Cortes will both get selected, I think. I could see Cortes throwing like 140 innings for his hometown Marlins next year. I just don’t have room for either guy on the 40-man. Gomez is the sleeper here. He had a great 2017 season (1.92 ERA and 2.19 FIP at four levels) and has lively stuff (mid-90s heat, good changeup). I bet someone grabs him. When you have a really good farm system, you can’t protect everyone. C’est a la vie.

At the moment the Yankees have two open 40-man roster spots, so we need to open three more to accommodate our five Rule 5 Draft protections. To open those spots, I am outrighting Austin Romine, Garrett Cooper, and Chasen Shreve. Romine will elect free agency should he clear waivers. Cooper and Shreve have never been outrighted before, so they can’t elect free agency if they clear waivers. Shreve will get claimed because he’s left-handed and breathing. Cooper probably slips through. (I prefer Tyler Austin as my righty first base bat.) Either way, those are my three 40-man roster casualties.

Arbitration

Given the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold, arbitration is a pretty big deal this offseason. I mean, it is every offseason, but especially this one. The Yankees have a pretty significant arbitration class and these guys will chew up a sizeable chunk of the payroll. Here are my arbitration payouts:

It is extension time for Gregorius. I gave him a five-year deal worth $42.5M as part of last year’s offseason plan, but since that didn’t happen in real life, we’ve got to try again this offseason. Jean Segura’s five-year, $70M deal with the Mariners is the template here. Segura was coming off a better season when he signed that deal, but Didi has the better overall body of work, and there’s a year’s worth of inflation to consider. Shortstops who are above-average on both sides of the ball and are still only 27 are worth long-term investments. It’s time.

Everyone else’s arbitration salary is set at their MLBTR projection. Easy enough, right? Maybe there’s some wiggle room here — could the Yankees get Gray at, say, $6.3M instead of $6.6M? Maybe. I’ll stick with the MLBTR projections. Romine and Shreve would’ve been arbitration-eligible too, had we not cut them loose to open 40-man roster space for Rule 5 Draft players.

Free Agents

The new backup catcher. (Jon Durr/Getty)
The new backup catcher. (Jon Durr/Getty)

Okay, now comes the fun stuff. This offseason the Yankees don’t need a major shopping spree to bolster the roster. They only need a few tweaks. “Is there a lot of heavy lifting necessary? No. But we’re always trying to be better,” said Brian Cashman the other day, which is how I see things. The core is in place. We’re looking for complementary players. A supporting cast. I’m making only three Major League free agent signings this winter:

  • CC Sabathia: Two years, $20M.
  • Yusmeiro Petit: One year, $3M.
  • Rene Rivera: One year, $2M.

Boring! Sorry if you were hoping for Yu Darvish or J.D. Martinez or Wade Davis or something. This isn’t a great free agent class, and with the luxury tax threshold a consideration, there’s not much payroll room for a big signing. Not once Masahiro Tanaka decided to stick around. Here’s my rationale.

1. Meeting Sabathia halfway. The Sabathia deal is all about compromise. I was originally penciling him in for a one-year deal worth $14M or so, but I get the sense he’s going to push for two guaranteed years. I’m reluctant to do that. With Sabathia talking so much about how much he wants to stay in New York — “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” he said after the ALCS Game Seven loss to the Astros — he’s got to meet me halfway. I’m trading that second guaranteed year for a lower average annual value (and luxury tax hit). Sabathia’s made a fortune already. This is money his kids and his kids’ kids won’t even be able to spend. He trades a little less cash for the second guaranteed year, the comfort of home, and playing for an upstart contending team.

2. Filling out the bullpen. As things stand, six of the seven bullpen spots are taken. There are the Plan A relievers (Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green) and the Plan B relievers (Betances, Kahnle, Warren). It would be easy — and understandable — to leave that seventh spot open for a younger bullpen arm and treat it as a shuttle spot. Maybe Ben Heller gets it, or Domingo German, or Nick Rumbelow, or whoever. I’d rather sign Petit, who threw 91.1 innings with a 2.76 ERA (2.85 FIP) and great strikeout (28.5%) and walk (5.1%) rates for the Angels this year. He’d give the Yankees another multi-inning reliever along with Green and Warren, which will come in handy should the team decide to take it easy on their starters given their workloads this year. Petit’s done it all over the years. Start, long man, middle reliever … he even closed some in 2017. He’s had a tough time getting contracts the last few offseasons — last year he didn’t sign his minor league deal with the Angels until February — but I really like the idea of him as the seventh reliever. Besides, you know there will injuries. The young guys like Heller and German will still get their chances.

3. A new backup catcher. No, Rivera is not the most exciting choice for backup catcher, but … it’s the backup catcher. The 34-year-old spent time in the Yankees farm system years ago — while with Double-A Trenton in 2010, Rivera hit the first ever professional home run allowed by Stephen Strasburg — and he’s a veteran dude who can kinda sorta hit (91 wRC+ in 2017) while doing things well behind the plate. His arm is strong (37% caught stealing) and his overall defensive numbers have been very good in recent years. Plus Rivera has a reputation for working well with young pitchers. Noah Syndergaard credited Rivera for helping him become a better pitcher after he served as his personal catcher in 2016. And who knows, maybe he’ll mentor Gary Sanchez and get him to take his defensive game to the next level too. That’d be neat. If nothing else, you can count on Rivera to be very good behind the plate, and he might even hit a little too. That represents an upgrade over what Romine gave the Yankees in 2017.

Trades

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
Yelich. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Gosh, I love trades. They’re so fun. They’re essentially a challenge — I think the players you’re giving me will help me more than the players I’m giving you — and there are so many more roster ramifications to analyze. You’re adding players and subtracting players at the same time. Trades are fun! Here are my offseason trades:

  • Clint Frazier, Chance Adams, Domingo Acevedo, and Nick Solak to the Marlins for Christian Yelich.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury and $53.7M ($17.9M per year from 2018-20) to the D’Backs for Kirby Bellow.
  • Jonathan Holder to the Cardinals for Breyvic Valera.
  • Bryan Mitchell to the Pirates for Daniel Zamora.

(Reminder: my trade proposals suck.)

One blockbuster, one salary dump, and two minor trades. Let’s break these down.

1. Capitalizing on the Marlins’ fire sale. Everyone is focused on Giancarlo Stanton and understandably so. He’s awesome and pairing him with Aaron Judge would be a lot of fun. I’m looking at Miami’s other stud outfielder though. Yelich is very good himself and, to me, he fits the Yankees better than Stanton. Stanton adds more strikeouts to the lineup and another corner bat. Strikeouts aren’t the end of the world, but I’d like fewer of them in the lineup going forward, not more.

Yelich is two years younger, substantially cheaper, and more well-rounded than Stanton. And not as good! But he’s still really good himself. Yelich turns 26 next month and he hit .282/.369/.439 (115 wRC+) with 18 homers, 16 steals in 18 attempts, 11.5% walks, and 19.7% strikeouts in 2017. And it was his worst MLB season. In Yelich, the Yankees would be getting an all-fields left-handed hitter …


Source: FanGraphs
… who doesn’t need a platoon partner, is starting to figure out how to pull the ball for power, adds a lot of value on the bases, and plays good center field defense. He’s a rich man’s Gardner, basically. And you’re getting him in the prime of his career — I think he’s on the cusp of becoming a .300/.400/.480 guy who goes 25/25 — and on a very favorable contract. Yelich is owed $7M in 2018, $9.75M in 2019, $12.5M in 2020, and $14M in 2021. His contract also includes a $15M club option ($1.25M buyout) for 2022. It’s a $44.5M guarantee for his age 26-29 seasons from 2018-21, plus you get the 2022 option. Sign me the hell up.

My original plan coming into this exercise was to add Edinson Volquez to the Yelich trade to lower the prospect cost. The Marlins are looking to shed significant payroll this winter — they reportedly may get it down to $55M or so (yikes!) — and the last thing a team looking to cut payroll wants is a $13M pitcher who won’t pitch. Volquez had Tommy John surgery in August. He won’t pitch next year. I was thinking we’d take on Volquez and, say, $10M of his $13M salary, and give up a prospect like Freicer Perez rather than Adams. It just doesn’t work financially though. We can’t fit Volquez under the luxury tax threshold. I mean, we could, it would just mean no Gregorius extension and no Petit. No Volquez means there’s even some leftover cash to use on a bat, though I don’t love the available low cost bats this winter.

Given their plan to slash payroll and strip the roster down, I imagine the Marlins want cheap MLB ready young players in return in any trade. In this deal they’d be getting an MLB ready player (Frazier), a damn near MLB ready player (Adams), a two close to MLB ready players (Solak, Acevedo). I feel like the offer is a little light, but according to MLB.com, the Yankees would be giving up their No. 2 (Adams), No. 6 (Acevedo), and No. 8 (Solak) prospects in addition to Frazier, who was a top 25 global prospect before exhausting his rookie eligibility late this year. The Yankees are still loaded with prospects even after this year’s graduations and trades, plus I’m not the world’s biggest Adams fan given his inability to get ground balls (41.4% in Triple-A) and less than stellar numbers against lefties (42/35 K/BB in 2017), so I’m using that prospect depth to get Yelich. I worry Adams is in for a world of hurt once he gets to Yankee Stadium. I’d rather use him to get a cornerstone type bat in Yelich, who is a two-way impact player that fits in perfectly with the youth movement and gives the Yankees what I think the lineup needs (another lefty bat and more contact).

(Here’s the other thing about Yelich: he wouldn’t stand in the way of signing Bryce Harper next offseason. The 2018 season is the final guaranteed year on Gardner’s contract. Depending how his season goes, the Yankees could move on from him, then add Harper to the cost controlled Yelich and still dirt cheap pre-arbitration Judge. I don’t think you can do things this offseason designed to make room for Harper. But adding Yelich wouldn’t stand in the way of signing Harper. Trading for Stanton would given his contract and the fact he’s another corner outfielder.)

2. Goodbye, Jacoby. Realistically, there’s no way to trade Ellsbury without it hurting. Either the Yankees have to eat a lot of money or take on a bad contract in return. I’m just looking to unload the salary, and the proposed trade turns him into a $4M a year player for the Diamondbacks. Bellow is included in the trade only because the Yankees have to get something in return per league rules. He’s a 25-year-old fringe lefty reliever prospect who had a 3.63 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 39.2 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2017. I’m hoping Ellsbury accepts a trade to the D’Backs, a contending team that could put him in the lineup right away given J.D. Martinez’s free agency. And, with A.J. Pollock due to hit free agency next year, there’s a path to Ellsbury staying in center field too. I dunno. I’m out of ideas. Maybe the Mariners make more sense? I feel like Ellsbury would only approve a trade to a no-doubt contender, and Arizona did win 93 games this year, so yeah. Point is, I’m eating all that money to save $4M a year from 2018-20. getting Bellow back is a non-factor. Trading Ellsbury opens a roster spot and basically clears enough payroll space under the luxury tax threshold to extend Didi.

3. What is a Breyvic Valera? Valera is a personal favorite. He’s a rich man’s Ronald Torreyes, basically. Switch-hitting contact machine who can play anywhere. Valera hit .314/.368/.450 (113 wRC+) with eight homers, eleven steals, 7.2% strikeouts, and 8.1% walks in Triple-A this past season, and he’s played every position other than pitcher or catcher in his career. He’s only 25 too. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Valera as the No. 29 prospect in the Cardinals’ system prior to 2017, and their scouting report called him “compellingly average at everything.” I thought that was amusing. St. Louis really needs bullpen arms and Holder has a chance to pitch in this league for a long time. Maybe they’ll turn him into the next Wade Davis or something. He fits their needs. Valera makes a ton of contact and has some power, and any time a guy can do that, he has a chance to really contribute. Add in the switch-hitting and defensive versatility and it’s a no-brainer for me. In all likelihood Valera is a utility player long-term. Every once in a while a guy with this skill set turns into Ben Zobrist or Jose Ramirez though.

Valera. (Denis Poroy/Getty)
Valera. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

4. The obligatory Pirates trade. Gotta make a trade with the Pirates right? The Yankees and Pirates get together for a deal every offseason, it seems. Mitchell is on the 40-man roster chopping block and the Pirates love love love their live arm reclamation projects. He fits their mold. Zamora, 24, is a slightly better than fringy left-on-left reliever prospect. That’s about Mitchell’s trade value at this point. The Pirates selected Zamora in the 40th round of the 2015 draft and he had a 1.76 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 56.1 innings split between High-A and Double-A in 2017. Lefties hit .232/.284/.261 with a 33.3% strikeout rate against him. Here is a free scouting report from Baseball Prospectus. Slider seems workable. Maybe the Yankees can unlock a little more velocity? Getting Zamora is better than putting Mitchell on waivers and getting nothing.

All told, those trades open three 40-man roster spots. We traded five 40-man players (Frazier, Acevedo, Ellsbury, Holder, Mitchell) for two 40-man players (Yelich, Valera). Those three open spots go to our three free agent signings (Sabathia, Petit, Rivera). We’ll have to open space every time we add a player from here on out.

Minor League Contracts

Everyone’s favorite part of the offseason. The Yankees, like every other team, sign stashable Triple-A depth players to minor league deals throughout the winter. Fans complain when they sign, complain when they play in Spring Training, complain when they get called up, and complain when they get designated for assignment because they hit a home run that one time. Seen it a thousand times.

Based on the depth chart as well as my offseason moves, the Yankees don’t need much in Triple-A. There are no glaring lineup needs. The projected starters right now:

Prospects at nearly every position! The RailRiders need a backup catcher and a utility guy who can play anywhere and sit for a few days at a time without disrupting his development. Also, I’d rather sign a veteran innings dude than stick Sheffield in the Triple-A rotation right out of the gate — a little more Double-A time wouldn’t be the end of the world for him — and I don’t want guys like Will Carter and Brody Koerner to be Plan A in the Scranton rotation. Here are my minor league signings (here’s the minor league free agents list):

  • RHP Christian Binford: Former Futures Gamer! Binford prior to the 2014 Futures Game: 2.53 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 266.2 innings. Binford since the 2014 Futures Game: 5.31 ERA (4.99 FIP) in 456.1 innings. Yikes! Binford is only 24 and he’s thrown 140-ish innings in four of the last five seasons, so he fits as the innings guy. Plus he’s young and had prospect shine with the Royals once upon a time. Squint your eyes and there’s some upside.
  • RHP Brandon Cumpton: Cumpton had a 4.02 ERA (3.14 FIP) in 100.2 innings for the Pirates from 2013-14, then he had Tommy John surgery in March 2015 and missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons. He finally got healthy and returned to the mound this year. His pre-Tommy John stuff was good. I’d stick him in the bullpen and see what happens.
  • UTIL Cito Culver: Might as well bring back Cito, right? He’s been the utility guy at Triple-A Scranton for a few years now and he’s done the job well enough to keep getting re-signed, so I might as well re-sign him again.
  • LHP Paco Rodriguez: I’ve always like Rodriguez. He’s got a funky delivery and a good enough breaking ball to be a potential left-on-left matchup option. Rodriguez had Tommy John surgery in October 2015 and his stuff hasn’t returned all the way yet.
  • C Jackson Williams: Can’t hit a lick — he’s a career .220/.303/.319 (70 wRC+) hitter in over 3,000 minor league plate appearances — but he can defend. Williams is a veteran dude (age 31) who’s settled in as a Triple-A backup the last few years. That’s what you want. Someone who knows and accepts the role.

Don’t like the minor league contract guys? Well, too bad. Not sure what to tell you. For the most part these guys are filling thankless but necessary roles. Injuries and call-ups are inevitable, and someone has to step in and pick up the slack.

The Shohei Otani Situation

Bring to me. (Getty)
Bring to me. (Getty)

I suppose it’s about time we get to the biggest prize of the offseason, huh? I saved Otani for the end because the Yankees — or any other team, for that matter — can’t and shouldn’t plan their offseason around him. I explained all that the other day. He’s only going to make the league minimum next season, so we don’t need to earmark a big chunk of change under the luxury tax threshold for Otani.

So anyway, yes, I’m going full court press here as part of my offseason hypothetical. Give Otani every last international bonus dollar and make one hell of a sales pitch. Get Tanaka involved. Get Hideki Matsui involved. Get Reggie Jackson involved. Sell the Yankees for what they are: an up-and-coming powerhouse in a great city loaded with young talent, and a team with a history of paying their best players top of the market dollars. The short version:

“We just got to within one game of the World Series. Our rookie right fielder hit 52 homers. Our 24-year-old catcher missed a month and still hit 33 homers. We have a 23-year-old righty who’s going to finish third in the Cy Young voting. We have the No. 1 prospect in baseball, per MLB.com. We’ll let you hit and pitch. Have you seen the short porch? Imagine what it’ll do for you power numbers. No team in baseball can offer you the chance to pitch and DH with the kind of young core, plus we pay well.”

Sound good? Now, because the financial playing field is relatively level, we can’t just assume the Yankees will sign Otani as part of this little exercise. I mean, we could, but we have to be somewhat realistic. Otani will make his decision based on his personal preferences and we have no idea what they are. Maybe he wants to go to a veteran team. Maybe hitting isn’t that big a deal for him. Maybe he wants to go to the West Coast. Who knows.

Anyway, since we are pursuing Otani aggressively, we have to come with an answer here. Does he sign with the Yankees, yes or no? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.

shohei-otani-magic-8-ball

WELP. So much for that. Too bad, Otani would’ve slotted nicely into the open bench spot. We tried. Gave it our best effort. Offered as much money as possible and made the best sales pitch we could. Ultimately, Otani decided to go to [other team] and that’s baseball. He was free to make his own decision. It’ll be fun beating him on the field.

Final Product

Okay, so after going through all that, I have the luxury tax payroll at approximately $189.3M going into 2018. Here’s my payroll spreadsheet. There’s some wiggle room there with the pre-arbitration salaries, but generally speaking, we are left with $7.7M for in-season additions. Is that enough? I dunno. Every time you call someone up, it adds to the payroll. Just say, for example, Kahnle pulls a Mitchell and breaks his foot covering first base in Spring Training. Now you have Kahnle and the call-up who replaced him counting against the luxury tax payroll. Hopefully $7.7M is enough. Here’s the 25-man roster I ended up with.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Gary Sanchez 1B Greg Bird LF Brett Gardner Luis Severino Aroldis Chapman
Rene Rivera 2B Starlin Castro CF Christian Yelich Masahiro Tanaka David Robertson
SS Didi Gregorius RF Aaron Judge Sonny Gray Chad Green
3B Chase Headley OF Aaron Hicks CC Sabathia Dellin Betances
IF Ronald Torreyes UTIL Breyvic Valera Jordan Montgomery Tommy Kahnle
1B Tyler Austin Adam Warren
Yusmeiro Petit

On the 40-man and in the minors (15): RHP Albert Abreu, 3B Miguel Andujar, OF Jake Cave, RHP Luis Cessa, IF Thairo Estrada, RHP Gio Gallegos, RHP Domingo German, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Ronald Herrera, C Kyle Higashioka, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Nick Rumbelow, LHP Caleb Smith, IF Gleyber Torres, UTIL Tyler Wade

My 2018 Yankees look an awful lot like the 2017 Yankees, huh? Swapping out Ellsbury for Yelich is the major change. The rest is just rearranging furniture. Keep in mind the Yankees will have Gray, Kahnle, and Robertson for a full season in 2018. That will hopefully lead to several wins worth of improvement. A few thoughts on the roster I wound up with.

1. For all intents and purposes, the Austin and Valera bench spots are shuttle spots. It would’ve been awfully nice to have Otani in one those spots, but alas. He signed with [other team]. And again, I really don’t love any of the projected low cost free agent bats. Adam Lind? Mark Reynolds? Austin Jackson? Meh. I’m going to say in house and show some faith in the kids. Those two shuttle spots give the Yankees some flexibility. If the Red Sox are coming to town with Chris Sale, David Price, and Drew Pomeranz scheduled to pitch the three games, Austin’s righty bat would come in handy. If you’re going to an NL park, someone like McKinney could come up to serve as a lefty bat off the bench. Or the Yankees could use one of those spots to carry an eighth reliever on occasion, or if they want to bring up a spot sixth starter to give the regular starters an extra day of rest. The Yankees don’t have to be locked into Austin and Valera for the 24th and 25th roster spots. That’s just who I’d put there to start the season. Those spots can be used to tailor the roster as necessary throughout the season. Sooner or later the best players will step up and seize those spots.

2. Gosh, I love the lineup possibilities. We talk a lot about versatility, and usually when we talk about versatility, we talk about positional versatility. Guys who can play multiple positions. There’s also something to be said for lineup versatility too. Yelich can hit leadoff or cleanup. Hicks has the profile to hit basically anywhere. Gregorius fits well in the middle of the order or at the bottom. Here’s how I’d line ’em up:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. CF Christian Yelich
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. DH Aaron Hicks (the plan is a DH rotation, not Hicks at DH full-time)
  9. 3B Chase Headley

Hitting Bird third and Yelich fifth works too. So does hitting Yelich second and Judge third. Or Yelich leadoff, Hicks second, Gregorius third, Judge fourth, Sanchez fifth, and Gardner ninth. The new manager, whoever it ends up being, will have a lot of flexibility with that group of players. Some hitters only fit into certain lineup spots because of their skills. This roster has a lot of well-rounded players who don’t look out of place anywhere.

3. No lefty reliever is no problem as far as I’m concerned. Robertson, Green, and Warren can all get out lefties. So can Betances when he’s right. In a close game with a big lefty bat at the plate, I want one of those high-end late-game righties on the mound, not some random southpaw just because he happens to throw with his left hand. I have Smith and Rodriguez stashed in Triple-A, plus Bellow and Zamora (and James Reeves) as additional lefty depth, just in case the Yankees determine at some point it’s imperative to have a lefty reliever. I don’t think it’s necessary. Take the best and most talented arms. Don’t worry about handedness.

4. I like the pitching depth more than I thought I would. I let go of a lot of pitching during the offseason. Adams, Acevedo, Holder, Mitchell, and Shreve are all gone. And yet, even after all of that, we still have Cessa, Gallegos, German, Herrera, Rumbelow, and Smith as immediate 40-man roster call-up candidates. We did lose a potential impact call-up candidate in Adams, though a) that’s what it takes to get a guy like Yelich, and b) I’m not sold on his ability to come up and be an immediate impact guy anyway. I wouldn’t push Sheffield aggressively — he’s such a good pitching prospect, just let him develop at his own pace rather than try to rush things — though he could debut at some point in the second half. Point is, even after all my hypothetical offseason moves, the Yankees would still have enough arms stashed in Triple-A that they could shuttle guys in and out as necessary, and also use spot sixth starters on occasion if they’re worried about workloads.

5. So what did this offseason plan accomplish, exactly? The goal every offseason is to get better, and I think I did that considerably by going from Ellsbury and Romine to Yelich and Rivera. Otherwise we replaced Todd Frazier and Matt Holliday with Austin and Valera, and, uh, that doesn’t sound great. The 2018 rotation is exactly the same as the end of 2017 rotation, so any improvement will have to come from a full season of Gray and less awfulness from Tanaka. I expect Petit to have an understated impact as well. His ability to go two or three innings at a time allows our new manager to take it easy on the starters, and also save the high-leverage guys for the next day.

Trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold — remember, the Yankees can’t spend right up to the $197M threshold this winter, they must leave space for in-season additions — was a real challenge, especially since I have no idea what would be an appropriate amount to leave for midseason additions. I left $7.7M. Would $5M have worked? Or $2M? Maybe we really need $15M? I don’t know. For this luxury tax plan to work — and by work I mean get under the threshold and remain competitive — the Yankees will need their cheap young players to produce, and I’m not just talking about Judge, Sanchez, and Severino. The secondary pieces like Montgomery, Heller, German, and even Torres will have to help as well. In a way, they’re the key to this whole plan.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

I haven’t listened to it personally, but apparently the R2C2 podcast with Ryan Ruocco and CC Sabathia is pretty awesome. Here’s the archive. Alex Rodriguez was on the most recent episode, and from what I’ve been told, Sabathia basically endorsed A-Rod as a managerial candidate. A-Rod sidestepped the manager talk. Besides, the Yankees aren’t hiring him. As fun as it would be and as much as I would love it, it ain’t happening. They’d sooner bring back Joe Girardi.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers and (possibly good?) Knicks are both playing tonight. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Manager search begins: Yanks reportedly interview Thomson

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has been nearly two weeks since the Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi, and we finally have our first report of the team interviewing a managerial candidate. The candidate: Rob Thomson. Ken Rosenthal reports Thomson interviewed today. Earlier this week Brian Cashman said each candidate hold a conference call, though I’m not sure whether that actually happened.

Thomson, 54, is a Yankees lifer who has been with the team since 1990, and he’s done everything over the years. Coached and managed in the minors, worked in the front office and in player development, and of course coached at the big league level. Thomson served as Girardi’s third base coach (2009-14) and had two stints as his bench coach (2008, 2015-17).

During the postseason both Alex Rodriguez (during a FOX pregame broadcast) and Girardi went out of their way to praise Thomson for staying on top of the team’s young players. “Rob Thomson, he stays on these guys all the time to make sure they’re in the right place and ready to go,” said Girardi prior to Game Five of the ALCS. The fact Thomson already has a relationship with the young guys can only help his chances of getting the job, I think.

Thomson interviewed with the Blue Jays for their managerial job a few years ago, and according to George King, the Twins spoke to him about their bench coach position this offseason. I suspect that, given how long he’s been with the organization and his existing relationships with the players, Thomson will be kept around in some capacity. If he doesn’t get the manager’s job, then maybe he stays on as a coach.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Hits of 2017

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

For the first time since 2012, the Yankees played in an actual postseason series this year. They beat the Twins in the AL Wild Card Game and came back from down 0-2 to beat the Indians in the ALDS — how cool was that? — before dropping Game 7 of the ALCS to the Astros. It was a fun season with a lot of big hits along the way.

Once again, I’m going to take my annual look at the five biggest hits of the Yankees season, though I’m going to use a different metric this time. Normally I use win probability added because that’s simple enough. This time around, I’m going use championship probability added, with is available at The Baseball Gauge. CPA is similar to WPA, though it looks at the big picture. Instead of “how much closer are we to winning the game because of this hit?” (WPA), it’s “how much closer are we to winning the World Series because of this hit?” (CPA). Easy, right?

Given the nature of CPA, the biggest hits of the year all came in the postseason. Winning one random game in May doesn’t improve your World Series hopes nearly as much as winning a postseason game in October. So anyway, let’s look at the five biggest hits of the season for the Yankees, shall we?

5. Judge vs. Giles in ALCS Game Four

Overall, the postseason was not kind to Aaron Judge. He hit .188/.316/.500 (114 wRC+) with a 47.4% strikeout rate in 13 postseason games, though he did provide some very big hits along the way. The biggest: his game-tying double in Game Four against the Astros. The Yankees were down 4-0 with nine outs to go in that game, and they won. The Fighting Spirit prevailed.

The comeback rally started with a Judge solo home run, which cut to deficit to 4-1. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but hey, a comeback has to start somewhere, right? The Yankees got to within one run with two run-scoring outs — Gary Sanchez had a sac fly in the seventh and Brett Gardner got a run home with a ground out in the eighth — and when Judge came to the plate against Ken Giles, the Yankees were down 4-3 with a runner on third and one out in the eighth inning.

Given his strikeout issues in October, it was easy to get discouraged when Judge fouled away a pitch to even the count 2-2. We were all waiting for the swing through the slider down-and-away. It never came. Giles did try to throw the slider down-and-away, but he left it up juuust enough for Judge to reach down and yank it to right field.

I thought it was a sacrifice fly off the bat. As strong as he is, I didn’t think Judge hit it hard enough to get it over the fence or even to the wall once he had to reach down for the slider like that. Somehow he managed to hammer it off the top of the all. Amazing. The double tied the game 4-4 and put the go-ahead run in scoring position. Two batters later, Sanchez split the right-center field gap for a go-ahead two-run double. So awesome. CPA of Judge’s double: +0.035.

4. Gardner vs. Allen in ALDS Game Five

Before Judge could be the hero in Game Four of the ALCS, the Yankees had to come back to beat the Indians in the ALDS. They won Game Three 1-0 thanks to Greg Bird‘s homer and Masahiro Tanaka‘s brilliance. They won Game Four 7-3 thanks to Luis Severino and a diverse offensive attack. Just forcing Game Five against a team as good as the Indians was quite the accomplishment.

The Yankees did not stop there. They jumped out to an early lead against Corey Kluber in Game Five, and when Gardner came to the plate in the ninth inning, his team was up 3-2. New York had runners on first and second with two outs and were looking for insurance. With the speedy Aaron Hicks at second, the Yankees did not need Gardner to find a gap. A single would suffice, and a single is what they got, but not until after Gardner battled Cody Allen for 12 — 12! — pitches. The glorious at-bat:

Here’s the crazy thing: that was Gardner’s second 12-pitch at-bat of the game. He battled Andrew Miller for 12 pitches in the fifth inning, though that at-bat ended in a strikeout. Can you imagine a left-handed hitter hanging in for a 12-pitch at-bat against Miller? Well, you don’t need to imagine. Gardner did it. And he did it against Allen as well, and drove in two huge insurance runs in the ninth inning of Game Five. CPA of Gardner’s single: +0.039.

3. Gregorius vs. Kluber in ALDS Game Five

Even after knocking him around in Game Two, having to face Kluber in Game Five of the ALDS was daunting. He’s probably going to win the Cy Young and he’s one of the three or four best pitchers in the world. No one wants to face that guy with the season on the line.

The Yankees jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead in Game Five thanks to a Didi Gregorius solo home run on a Kluber mistake. He missed his spot with a fastball by the full width of the plate. It was supposed to be away, and instead he left it up middle-in. Gregorius yanked it out to right for a first inning homer. And two innings later, Didi did it again. Kluber left a slider up, and Gregorius again hammered it to right field, this time for a two-run shot and a 3-0 lead.

I remember watching the game at home and feeling, for the first time in the series, that holy crap the Yankees might actually win this. Once they fell behind 0-2 in the series, I figured they were done. The Indians are so good. Then the Yankees won Game Three and I thought great, the season continues another day. Then the Yankees won Game Four and I though awesome, they’re really making them sweat. Then Gregorius hit his first homer. Hmmm. Then he hit his second. That’s when it really hit me. The comeback was on, truly. CPA of Didi’s second dinger: +0.042.

2. Headley vs. Musgrove in ALCS Game Four

Oh no oh no oh no oh yes oh yes oh yes! That describes this play in a nutshell. It was not a run-scoring hit, but it was an important hit as part of the comeback in Game Four of the ALCS. The Yankees were still down 4-2 at the time, and Todd Frazier opened the eighth inning with a single to left against Joe Musgrove. Pinch-hitter Chase Headley followed with what went into the record books as a single. It was so much more than that though.

After the game Headley explained he was thinking double out of the box, but he hit the first base bag weird and slipped, which led to the stumble. The Astros had him dead to rights, but thankfully Carlos Correa decided to throw to first base rather than second. The throw to first gave Headley enough time to hustle to second base to beat the tag. A second baseman with longer arms probably gets the tag down in time. I’m not trying to be a jerk. Jose Altuve’s a ridiculously good player. But his size may have cost him the out there.

Anyway, that single — Headley officially hit a single and advanced to second on the throw — put runners on second and third with no outs in a 4-2. That’s why it registers so high in terms of CPA. It put the tying run in scoring position with no outs, with the Yankees having a chance to win the game to even the series 2-2. CPA of Headley’s single: +0.042.

1. Bird vs. Morton in ALCS Game Seven

A harsh reminder of how close the Yankees were to the World Series. Their biggest hit of the season in terms of CPA did not drive in a run. It did not even lead to a run being scored later in the inning. It set them up to potentially score the tying run in Game Seven of the ALCS.

The Yankees were down 1-0 in the fifth inning of Game Seven, and Charlie Morton was going through the lineup a second time. He’d allowed some hard contact in the previous inning, and in that fifth inning, Bird greeted him with a first pitch leadoff double into the right field corner. Just like that, the Yankees had the tying run in scoring position in Game Seven.

At +0.044 CPA, Bird’s double was the biggest hit of the season. It moved the Yankees closer to a World Series championship than any other hit this year. And yet, the double led to heartbreak. Later in the inning Bird was thrown out at home on a rather spectacular play by Alex Bregman and Brian McCann on Frazier’s little grounder.

Brutal. Not the decision to run, necessarily, just the play itself. It was quite deflating. The Yankees had runners on the corners with one out in a tie game, then bam, Bird was thrown out at home. Yuck. The single biggest hit of the season led to that.

* * *

CPA and WPA are an objective look at something that, frankly, is quite subjective. You know when a big hit happens because you feel it. There are factors and context stats don’t consider. It doesn’t know that, say, the shutdown closer is warming up in the bullpen so you better score now. Or that the staff ace is looming in Game Four so you better not lose Game Three and fall behind in the series 2-1, you know?

Subjectively, I thought the three biggest hits of the season were Didi’s three-run game-tying homer in the Wild Card Game, Bird’s home run off Miller in Game Three of the ALDS, and Sanchez’s go-ahead two-run double in Game Four of the ALCS. I go to a lot of games each year, and I went to Houston for Games Six and Seven of the ALCS for CBS, and the loudest I heard a ballpark in 2017 was Yankee Stadium after Sanchez hit the double. It was louder than Minute Maid Park after the Astros won Game Seven. It was incredible.

The Bird home run pretty much saved the season. The Yankees were down 0-2 in the ALDS and needed that win, and it was pretty clear neither side was going to put together a sustained rally in the game. Both clubs were into their ace relievers at that point too. Then Bird smacked his dinger and brought the house down. Good times, good times.

* * *

That concludes the postseason portion of our program. Now let’s look back at the biggest hits of he regular season, because hey, big regular season hits are cool too.

Biggest regular season hits by CPA

  1. May 5th: Brett Gardner go-ahead three-run homer vs. Cubs (+0.005 CPA) (video)
  2. July 8th: Clint Frazier walk-off three-run homer vs. Brewers (+0.005 CPA) (video)
  3. July 27th: Gary Sanchez game-tying single vs. Rays (+0.005 CPA) (video)

Six other regular season hits registered at +0.004 CPA. The Gardner homer against the Cubs stands out as the biggest hit of the regular season for me. The Frazer walk-off job was pretty great too. Remember that Sanchez hit? That was when Tim Beckham and Adeiny Hechavarria miscommunicated and let a weak grounder get through the infield. It should’ve been the final out of the game.

Biggest regular season hits by WPA

  1. May 5th: Brett Gardner go-ahead three-run homer vs. Cubs (+0.730 WPA)
  2. July 8th: Clint Frazier walk-off three-run homer vs. Brewers (+0.650 WPA)
  3. April 28th: Starlin Castro game-tying two-run homer vs. Orioles (+0.470 WPA) (video)
  4. April 30th: Didi Gregorius game-tying two-run single vs. Orioles (+0.460 WPA) (video)
  5. June 23th: Brett Gardner game-tying solo homer vs. Rangers (+0.460 WPA) (video)

CPA and WPA agree the Gardner homer against the Cubs and Clint’s walk-off dinger were the two biggest hits of the regular season. I’m cool with that. Makes sense to me. The Castro homer was fun. Between the big comeback and the whole dropping to one knee thing, it was one of the most satisfying and aesthetically pleasing homers of the season. I don’t remember the Gregorius single against the O’s at all. That was the game Bryan Mitchell played first base. I still can’t believe that happened.

Aaron Hicks: Fourth outfielder to starting in center [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Going into 2017, you would have been forgiven if you chalked up the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks deal to a lose-lose with both players going bust in their new environments. Hicks hit .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in his first season with the Yankees while fulfilling mostly a part-time, fourth outfielder role.

Despite his clear tools, his breakout in 2017 was nonetheless surprising.

Forging an opportunity

Just like in 2017, Hicks was the fourth outfielder to start the year. He nearly outhit Aaron Judge in spring training while trying to win the right fielder job, putting up a .268/.379/.518 line.

When the regular season started, Hicks was better from the jump. In his first start (Apr. 8), He went 1 for 2 with a double and a walk. After Brett Gardner was banged up on a play at first, he got a chance to start full-time for a week and he took off. He homered twice to lead the Yankees to a win over the Rays. He walked six times while knocking in eight runs in a four-game span.

Impressively, he had four two-walk games in April despite starting just nine times. Since he was in the minors, Hicks was always renowned for his eye, but it hadn’t quite translated to the majors. He added a pair of three walks games on May 3 and May 11 while notching seven hits in two games in-between against the Cubs. After the May 11 game, he was hitting .333/.474/.627. That’s unreal, even in the small sample size.

Of course, while this was happening, Aaron Judge was taking the entire league by storm while Brett Gardner was beginning to show off some power. Even Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting some, so it would have been simple for Hicks to lose playing time as soon as he had a brief cold streak…

Breaking out

But then came Ellsbury’s concussion on May 24. From there on out, centerfield was Hicks’ job for the taking.

And take it he did. He put together a 21-game on-base streak from mid-May to mid-June. This included a four-hit game with three doubles and six RBI against Toronto. Just killing the ball.

He was walking consistently and wasn’t striking out nearly as much. Meanwhile, Hicks continued to hit for power, posting 10 homers and 15 doubles along with 37 walks to just 42 strikeouts through June 25.

Injuries rear their ugly head

But on Old Timer’s Day on the 25th, Hicks injured his oblique. He’d missed a few games with Achilles soreness just a few days earlier. Hicks had dealt with injuries in 2016, but none that kept him out quite as long as the oblique injury did. It robbed the Yankees of their best option in the No. 2 spot of their lineup, where Hicks had been batting for nearly three weeks.

While he was replaced by Ellsbury on the roster, it was still a blow to the team as they lost Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday around the same time. The team was left shorthanded and their lineup took a hit.

Hicks would return more than a month later on Aug. 10 and he wasn’t quite the same despite a clutch homer and outfield assist in his second game back.

He went from hitting .290/.398/.515 before the oblique injury to hitting .265/.367/.463 when he left with another oblique injury. At the time, it was thought that it may end his season. He had put up six hits on Aug. 30-31 over nine plate appearances, but it was still a disappointing finish.

However, he’d make it back for six more games (five starts) to close out the year. He robbed his second grand slam of the season in his first inning back on Sept. 26 and walked three times in the game. He’d hit homers each of the next two days and close out the year hitting .266/.372/.475 (127 wRC+), a career-best line.

You're probably wonder how I ended up here... (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
You’re probably wonder how I ended up here… (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Highlights in the field

Here are the two grand slams he robbed. One was in Anaheim in mid-June (the road trip from hell) and the other in Tampa.

Hicks had yet another strong year in the field. Despite Ellsbury’s hot streak to end the year, he earned the starting centerfield job back in part due to his far superior arm in center. It definitely discourages teams from taking an extra base on him like Eduardo Nunez tried to in August.

As for his overall fielding, he occasionally misreads a ball yet he tends to make up for it with his speed. His first oblique injury came making a play near the wall, so he made need to be more careful there moving forward.

Still, Hicks had a career-best 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 13.5. While he had a strong year at the plate, he didn’t let himself take off plays in the field. A testament to him and his all-around game. True five-tool player.

Back in the nick of time

Returning just in time for the postseason, Hicks was right back in center field. It gave the Yankees their best defensive arrangement and a batter with a strong eye near the bottom of the lineup. Getting back into center so quickly showed that he’s well above Ellsbury in the Yankees’ plans.

And Hicks produced some big playoff moments, including a bases-loaded walk in the Wild Card Game to extend the lead and a monster home run to KO Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 2. He nearly opened the ALCS with a homer off Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, but he hit to the wrong part of Minute Maid Park. While he hit well in the ALDS (.316/.350/.526), he was mostly silent at the plate in the ALCS, finishing the postseason with a .196/.260/.304 line.

2018 Outlook

Hicks likely goes into 2018 as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He’s opened the door for the Yankees to salary dump Ellsbury while still having a more than adequate replacement.

If healthy, he has the approach at the plate that can produce something close to his 2017 production over a full year, even if maybe not quite as productive. He hit just .218/.319/.396 in the second half, still showing off his ability to draw walks but striking out a fair amount more while working around injuries.

Still, there’s less pressure on him to be a top-of-the-order hitter with Judge, Sanchez, Bird and others ahead of him. He works anywhere in the lineup with a limited left-right split (surprisingly close splits, even for a switch-hitter) and his approach at the plate.