Outfielders on the wrong side of 30 [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to Year 4 of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury manning the Yankees’ outfield. At the time Ellsbury signed in the 2013-14 offseason, it seemed like Gardner may quickly receive a ticket out of New York, but an extension for the speedster said otherwise. Three years of trade rumors have followed yet Gardner is still firmly planted in left field.

Including this season, there are four years left on Ellsbury’s deal and two on Gardner’s. With a series of outfield prospects — or shortstop prospects soon-to-be outfield prospects — slowly making their march towards the major league roster, the days of both players taking the field simultaneously for NYY is quickly dwindling.

The wrong side of 30

Within three weeks of each other late this summer, both Ellsbury and Gardner will turn 34 years old. For two players that have made their names with their speed as their No. 1 tool, it’s not an ideal time in their careers. Many players like these two don’t age gracefully. That presents a grim reality for a squad reliant on both their skills if it’s going to be a playoff contender.

Both players have seen their stolen base numbers fall every season since 2013. They still combined for 36 in 2016, a respectable total but one each player used to eclipse individually. The duo on the base paths does have value regardless of decline. For what it’s worth, it seems like they could steal fewer bases if that was mandated. Gardner had the same stolen base percentage in 2016 as he did in 2015 but had five fewer attempts. Ellsbury had one fewer steal and one fewer caught stealing in 2016 than 2015.

Beyond stolen bases, both players are about average hitters at this points in their careers. Gardner hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) in 2016. His OBP improved over 2015 (.343) but his slugging percentage fell significantly (.399). Gardner had hit 33 home runs over 2014-15 but smacked just seven last year. On the bright side, he had just five fewer hits in 22 fewer plate appearances and he sliced 29 strikeouts (135 to 106) off his total.

Gardner’s average exit velocity decreased by nearly 2 mph (88.8 to 86.9) while his launch angle was slightly lower. He does still have the best eye of anyone on the team and his patience near the top of the lineup is a significant asset. Even when he makes outs, he tends to see a lot of pitches to the benefit of those who come after him.

As for his exit velocity, check out his charts from 2015 to 2016 below via Baseball Savant. His performance lagged on pitches low in the zone and inside while he greatly improved on pitches high and away.

gardner-2015-2016-exit-velo
2015 vs. 2016 (Baseball Savant)

Ellsbury, meanwhile, actually saw general improvement from 2015 to 2016. That makes sense: He injured his knee midway through 2015 and his performance declined sharply after his return. He went from a .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) line to a still-below-average but better .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) mark. That’s encouraging. He had 14 more extra-base hits in 125 more plate appearances in 2016 while seeing a small increase in exit velocity (87.1 to 87.4 mph)

Brian Cashman called out Ellsbury, saying the team expected more from their center fielder in 2016. That doesn’t mean a return to the 32-home run season he had with the Red Sox in 2011, but the team wants him to be a force getting on base and stealing bases. Ellsbury set the catcher’s interference record in 2016 but don’t expect a repeat of that dubious mark in this year: Hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with Ellsbury to move his contact more out in front. It may not make much of a difference, but hey, he does already have a home run this spring off a lefty pitcher!

Both guys played over 145 games in 2016 and that kind of durability would be a solid plus in 2017 as well. Age-wise, you may not be able to count on that, but that’s why you have Aaron Hicks and general outfield depth.

Lineup questions

Since Ellsbury signed his monster deal to join the Yankees, Gardner and Ellsbury have been in the top three of the Bombers’ lineup in varying orders at all times. That may change in 2017.

The reason to keep them at the top is simple: They add impressive speed and are two of the Yankees’ best in on-base percentage. Who doesn’t want fast players who get on base near the top of the lineup?

The duo at the top of the lineup has presented some problems for the Yankees. While they give the Yankees a speed dynamic to begin games, they are also easy targets for potent lefty relievers to take advantage late in games. Finding a way to split up the lefties would make a whole lot of sense for the Yankees, particularly if it meant moving a stronger bat like Gary Sanchez up in the lineup. Both players have also seen declines in their on-base skills recently, so there’s even more logic to splitting them up.

According to Joe Girardi, the Yankees are unlikely to split them up by moving one of them (Gardner) to the ninth spot. This wouldn’t really solve their problems as they’d still be back to back in the lineup after one time through. Most people have thought about the possibility of moving Ellsbury down to around sixth in the lineup.

Ellsbury batting sixth would make a lot of sense. You split up lefties, you move a declining bat down and you give yourself speed in the second half of the lineup as well. However, Ellsbury has been lukewarm at best on the lineup. It’s understandable when you’re a veteran so used to batting in the top three. With Ellsbury’s reticence, the team may wait until later in his contract to move him in the lineup.

Still strong defensively

There are plenty of questions about Ellsbury and Gardner going into this season, but it’s tough to have many doubts about them defensively. After all, Gardner is coming off his first Gold Glove. Ellsbury is six years removed from his only Gold Glove. However, according to most defensive metrics, he rebounded from a poor 2015 season (-3.2 UZR likely explained due to his knee injury) with the glove to be a better center fielder again in 2016 (0.7 UZR). Gardner (-2.7 to 3.6) had a similar bounce, which could be partly thanks to fewer games in center field thanks to a healthy Ellsbury.

That’s really important for the Yankees. If the duo will continue to decline in any way offensively, they will need to at least stay viable defensively. When healthy, they both provide the speed necessary to cover at least 2/3s of the outfield and help the pitching staff. One issue, of course, is each of their respective arms. Gardner’s is below average, albeit decent. Ellsbury comes from the Johnny Damon school of outfield arm strength and teams will continue to take advantage of his weak arm in center field.

At some point in the future, Ellsbury is likely to move over to left field but not this season. That’s for late in his contract when his speed isn’t as viable and someone, whether it be Clint Frazier or Jorge Mateo, has proven capable of taking over center. At the very least, Ellsbury has significant left field experience from his early Red Sox career.

So far this spring, Gardner has played center field when Ellsbury has been off with Hicks tending to play a corner position. This goes contrary to last season when Girardi tended to keep Gardner in left field even when Ellsbury was out. The change may be to optimize the outfield to take advantage of Gardner’s extra range and superior angles to the ball. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season commences.

Gardner was clearly on the trade block this offseason. However, until proven otherwise, it’ll be Gardy and Jake again in the outfield for the Yankees. Both players may be on the downside of their careers, but they still have real value to the Yankees beyond the weight of their respective contracts. Count me among those excited to see if Gardner can bounce back in 2017 and whether Ellsbury’s 2016 bump up was a sign of things to come.

Spring Training Game Thread: Green’s Second Start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees return to television today, thankfully, and rotation candidate Chad Green will be making his second Grapefruit League start. It’s his second start and third appearance. As I mentioned in today’s mailbag, there doesn’t seem to be a standout among the rotation candidates thus far, but there are still three weeks to go before Opening Day. Green could start to separate himself this afternoon.

What else should you watch today? Well, Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield, for one. Or two, I guess. They’re both scheduled to come out of the bullpen. There’s a pretty good chance both guys will be making their final Grapefruit League appearance today before being sent out to minor league camp. We’ve reached that time of the spring. Here is the Phillies’ lineup and here are the players the Yankees sent across the causeway to Clearwater:

  1. CF Aaron Hicks
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. 1B Greg Bird
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. LF Clint Frazier
  9. SS Tyler Wade
    RHP Chad Green

Available Pitchers: RHP Chance Adams, LHP Jon Niese, LHP Justus Sheffield, and RHP Jonathan Holder are all scheduled to pitch after Green. LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP Matt Marsh, and RHP Kyle Haynes are the extra arms. You know what? It might be RHP Mark Montgomery, not Jordan. The lineup card only lists “Montgomery.” Jordan last pitched Monday and he’s been on a strict every five days schedule this spring. Seems weird to send an extra pitcher who presumably can’t pitch. Marsh and Haynes are up from minor league camp for the road trip. Mark Montgomery might be as well. Whatever.

Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Jorge Mateo, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Ruben Tejada, LF Rashad Crawford, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Rob Refsnyder, and DH Miguel Andujar will be the second string off the bench. C Jorge Saez, IF Pete Kozma, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo drew the short straws and had to make the road trip even though they aren’t scheduled to play.

The internet tells me the weather in Clearwater is typical Florida weather. A little cloudy but warm. Good baseball weather. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. If you live in the Phillies home market, you can watch the game on CSN Philly TCN. The game will also be shown on MLB Network, even in the New York market. There’s also MLB.tv. Enjoy the game.

Mailbag: Rotation Candidates, McKinney, Higashioka, Rule 5

I’ve got a dozen questions for you in the mailbag this week. Only thee more mailbags until the regular season begins, you know. As always, send your questions to RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com.

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Christian asks: Based on the first two weeks of games, who of the candidates for the 4th and 5th rotation spots have the upper hand?

Joe Girardi said earlier this week it’s still pretty even, which was nothing more than a diplomatic answer in early-March. Why say someone is ahead of everyone else with more than three weeks to go in camp? I’m not sure that benefits anyone. Here are the spring stats:

Yeah, good luck picking a favorite out of that group right now. Based on what we’ve seen, I think Mitchell has looked the best, but that doesn’t mean much of anything. This still seems very wide open to me, so I’m going to stand by my initial prediction: Cessa and Severino in the rotation, Mitchell in the bullpen, and Green in Triple-A to start the season. And by the end of the season, Cessa will emerge as the best long-term rotation option of the four.

Update: I forgot about Adam Warren. His spring line: 8 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 3 HR. He’s looked exactly like Adam Warren has always looked. As I’ve said several times over the last several weeks, I’ll be very surprised if Warren ends up in the rotation. It seems the Yankees prefer him in the bullpen. Maybe they’ll surprise me.

Bob asks: In Spring Training, the pitchers throw bullpen sessions, throw live batting practice, and pitch in simulated games before pitching in spring training games. What exactly is involved in pitching simulated games and why would the team assign a pitcher to simulated games rather than Spring Training games which is a real game situation?

In a simulated game, typically two batters (one righty and one lefty) alternate at-bats against the pitcher with a coach calling balls and strikes, usually from behind a screen behind the mound. There are no fielders or runners or anything like that. The pitcher pitches, and if the ball is put in play, the coach determines whether it was a hit or an out or whatever. It’s a way to simulate actual at-bats with counts and game situations (runner on second, etc.).

Simulated games are much more controlled than actual games. If a pitcher gets hit around and loads the bases with no outs in a simulate game, they can shut the inning down so he doesn’t throw too many pitches and risk injury, then start with a fresh inning after a resting for 10-15 minutes. Can’t do that with a real game. This is especially useful when you’re bringing a pitcher along slowly, like James Kaprielian following last year’s elbow injury.

Ron asks: Why should the playing time be between Hicks and Judge? As you’ve said before that Hicks is better with more playing time. He should be challenging for the left field job as both Gardner and Ellsbury are basically the same type of player as both are lead off hitters. Wouldn’t it be more to the Yanks benefit to rotate those two in center field and see what Hicks can do with more at bats?

If the choice is between Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks, give me Judge all day, every day. Now, if it were Hicks or either Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury, I’d go with Hicks, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Right now, it seems the only path Hicks has to regular playing time is a) one of the regular outfielders gets hurt, b) Judge struggles so much he has to go back to Triple-A, or c) Gardner is traded. I’m not really sure what the Yankees can do with Hicks, who isn’t all that young anymore (27) and hasn’t done nearly enough in his career to warrant more playing time. A switch-hitting outfielder with some power and speed is a nice asset, but where is he supposed to play? How do you justify playing him over Gardner, Ellsbury, or Judge?

Justin asks: Why is Ben Heller not included on any of the prospect lists? He’s only pitched 7 MLB innings. His upside is that of a solid major league reliever. Probably more than you can say for some of the other right handers lower down on the prospect list.

Heller nearly made my top 30 prospects list. He’s the best relief prospect in the system in my opinion. Heller’s fastball is ridiculous and his slider is pretty good too. I expect him to ride the shuttle this year and emerge as a full-time bullpener by the end of next season. Generally speaking though, it’s really tough to rank a reliever among the best prospects in a farm system this deep. The Yankees have so many everyday position player and starting pitcher candidates that ranking a reliever requires an awful lot of faith in his ability to carve out an MLB role. I’ve done this long enough to know bullpen prospects are more unpredictable than any other type of prospect.

Hand. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Hand. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Brandon asks: First time long time hello, would love to hear one player not currently in the Yankees organization that will play at least 30 games for the Yankees this season?

The Yankees weirdly did not have anyone like this last year. Here are the leaders in games played for the 2016 Yankees among players who were not in the organization on Opening Day:

  1. Adam Warren, Tommy Layne, and Tyler Clippard — 29 games each
  2. Blake Parker — 16
  3. Billy Butler — 12
  4. Ben Heller — 10
  5. Ike Davis — 8
  6. Eric Young Jr. — 6
  7. Phil Coke — 3

Billy Butler, man. Remember when people were talking about re-signing that guy? What the heck was that about? Anyway, as for the question, the smart money is on a pitcher because the Yankees have internal position player options at nearly every position thanks to the farm system. Teams always need pitchers though.

A few weeks ago I said I had a hunch the Yankees would trade for Carter Capps this summer, though his delivery has since been made illegal (in theory), so I’m calling an audible. The 30-game minimum rules out a starting pitcher. I’m going to say … Brad Hand. How’s that for a weird one? Hand was pretty good last year, throwing 89.1 relief innings with a 2.92 ERA (3.07 FIP) and 30.5% strikeouts for the Padres. San Diego is in full blown tear it down mode and the Yankees are said to be looking for another lefty reliever. (Sorry, Jon Niese.) I guess you could say the pinstriped glove fits the Hand. Dammit. Sorry. I’m so sorry.

Mark asks (short version): Sanchez was supposed to be good but he blew way past anyone’s expectations. He was in the 30s to 50s on most prospect boards. He wasn’t a top 10 or even top 25 on most if any prospect boards. Gut feeling which Yankee prospect do you think can blow past expectations?

Gary Sanchez was a classic example of prospect fatigue. He was around for so long — the Yankees signed him in July 2009 and it wasn’t until August 2016 that he stuck in MLB for good — that people got tired of waiting and were bored of following him as a prospect. Check out where Sanchez ranked on Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 prospects list through the years, via Baseball Reference:

gary-sanchez-bp-rankings

Amazing. That isn’t to say we should have expected Sanchez to do what he did last year, that was an unreal pace, but the idea his prospect status was falling had more to do with the folks ranking him than Sanchez himself. He was never not an excellent catching prospect.

As for the question, Justus Sheffield definitely seems like someone who could exceed expectations to me. MLB.com’s free scouting report says he “has the upside of a No. 3 starter,” and the other major scouting publications have written similar things. I dunno, I see a lefty with three really good pitches and a ton of athleticism. Yes, Sheffield needs to throw more strikes, but his clean delivery and athleticism suggest it should happen in time. I think Sheffield has a chance to be a top 25-30 pitcher in baseball at his peak.

Judge is another one, if only because so many people seem to be down on him following his big league cameo last year. The innate hitting ability is there and he has more than enough power. It’s just a matter of recognizing how pitchers are attacking him. The road may be bumpy, but Judge’s offensively upside is ridiculously high. Want a lower ranked prospect? Domingo German. He’s healthy now and has a mid-90s sinker with a great changeup, and his slider showed more promise than, say, Domingo Acevedo’s prior to his Tommy John surgery.

Brent asks: Are we being unfair and undervaluing Castro? He strikes out a ton, low on base, and somewhat shaky defense at a new position. However, he hit 270 with 20 bombs. We’ve had Brendan Ryan, Drew, and Brian Roberts play second. Give me Castro all day.

Well yeah, give me Starlin Castro over guys like Ryan, Roberts, and Stephen Drew. That’s not really who we should be comparing him to though. Twenty-one second basemen qualified for the batting title last year and Castro ranked 17th in wRC (94 wRC+), 17th in bWAR (+1.2), and 19th in fWAR (+1.1). Castro is among the worst everyday second basemen in baseball right now. He has two things going for him. One, his contract. He’s owed $30M from 2017-19 and that will continue to buy him opportunities. And two, the idea that he is still young and could, in theory, get better. That said, Castro has nearly 4,400 big league plate appearances under his belt and he’s made basically zero adjustments to his approach. He still hacks and hacks and hacks. Starlin isn’t good enough to be a key contributor to a winning team and he’s not bad enough replace, which is pretty much the worst place to be.

Mike asks: Does McKinney have enough bat/athleticism to play first? I love Bird, but shoulders are tricky. If McKinney isn’t an alternative and Bird’s shoulder is a long term issue, is there anyone in the system?

I think Billy McKinney could handle first base defensively once he gets some experience under his belt. There’s nothing in his physical tools to suggest he can’t handle first. Will he hit enough though? The offensive bar at first base is quite high and right now McKinney’s bat is a question. I know he has a pretty swing and has had a great Grapefruit League season, and that’s encouraging, but I’m going to need to see lots more than a dozen Spring Training at-bats to think he’s turned the corner after a tough 2016 season. I say keep McKinney in the outfield for the time being. Let him force the issue with his bat before worrying about changing his position as a way to get him in the lineup.

McKinney. (Presswire)
McKinney. (Presswire)

Greg asks: Lets just say McKinney keeps hitting and regains his old prospect shine. Assuming he does, what kind of prospect are we dealing with? on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being Ben Gamel and 5 being Clint Frazier)

On that scale … a three? Yeah, a three. In this scenario Dustin Fowler would be a four for me. He and McKinney have similar offensive upside but Fowler offers so much more on defense. A two would be someone like Mason Williams or Tyler Austin, I guess. A former top prospect who has been trying to regain their old prospect shine for a period of several years, not one year like McKinney. The thing with McKinney is he doesn’t offer a ton of defense, so he’s going to have to hit and hit big to be an above-average big leaguer. He has the talent to do that, but there’s a reason this guy was the third piece in a trade for a reliever. His stock is down and he has quite a way to go to build it back up. This spring is a nice start.

Jason asks: Is it at all possible for Higashioka to win the backup job this spring? And if not, what’s a realistic time we might see him in the majors?

Possible? Yes. Likely? No. I know Kyle Higashioka has smashed some dingers (against minor league pitchers) this spring and that’s cool, but I have a hard thinking the Yankees will dump Austin Romine, go with Higashioka as the backup, and leave Wilkin Castillo as the third catcher in Triple-A. We’ll see Higashioka in the bigs this year. Don’t worry. At worst he’ll be a September call-up. Chances are he’ll have to come up as an injury replacement for a few weeks before that. Catchers have a way of getting banged up. I’d bet on Higashioka being the primary backup catcher in 2018. Just not on Opening Day 2017.

Mike asks: Going into camp it looked for certain Romine would be the backup and Higashioka would be depth in AAA – I know camp numbers are not to be trusted, but it’s hard to ignore Higashioka’s bat, especially considering the 68 wRC+ Romine put up last year. Who has more (any) trade value? Romine or Higashioka? Who has more value to the Yankees? Romine or Higashioka?

Higashioka has more trade value because he hasn’t had the same opportunity to fail at the MLB level as Romine. That’s usually how it works. The prospect always feels more valuable than the big leaguer because you can dream on the prospect whereas the big league has already slapped you in the face with the reality that hey, MLB is hard. Higashioka undeniably has more power than Romine and he might be a better defender. I do think he’s the better long-term asset. Remember though, there is no Higashioka in MLB and Romine in Triple-A. That scenario doesn’t exist. Romine is out of options, and even if he clears waivers, he’s likely to elect free agency to look for a better opportunity elsewhere, like every other fringe player who has cleared waivers.

Anthony asks: I was looking at San Diego’s ST stats and noticed Torrens hasn’t gotten into any games so far, which made me wonder if you think any of the four we lost in this years Rule V draft are going to be coming back?

Torrens has played a handful of games since this question was sent in. The Yankees lost four players in the Rule 5 Draft over the winter, and here’s an update on their spring performance:

  • RHP Tyler Jones, Diamondbacks: 4 G, 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K, 0 HR
  • LHP Caleb Smith, Cubs: 2 G, 3 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 3 HR
  • C Luis Torrens, Padres: 6 G, 0-8, 1 BB, 2 K
  • LHP Tyler Webb, Pirates: 3 G, 4 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0 HR

I still expect Torrens to come back even though he is second in innings caught among Padres catchers this spring. The track record of Rule 5 Draft catchers sticking is so terrible, and Torrens will be trying to make the jump from Low-A at age 20 after missing all of 2015 and the first half of 2016 to shoulder surgery. San Diego has two veteran backup catcher candidates in camp (Tony Cruz and Hector Santiago, plus two-way player Christian Bethancourt can catch) and all that leads me to believe Torrens is coming back.

There’s basically no way Smith sticks with the Cubs, and that was true even before the whole three homers in three innings thing. Chicago has a small army of bullpen candidates in camp, many of them with big league time, and it’s not often you see a legitimate World Series contender (favorite?) carry a Rule 5 Draft guy on the roster. Jones has a good chance to stick with the D-Backs because they stink. Based on their depth chart, Webb is on the outside of Pittsburgh’s bullpen looking in, though that could change in a hurry.

My guess is Torrens and Smith come back at the end of the camp, Jones sticks with Arizona, and Webb opens the season with the Pirates before bouncing around on waivers a bit, then eventually comes back to New York during the summer.

Open Thread: March 9th Camp Notes

Another day, another win for the Yankees. They’re now 11-3 and have Spring Training‘s best record. Grapefruit League championship here they come. Anyway, this afternoon’s win featured three hits and two steals by Jacoby Ellsbury, a home run by Brett Gardner, a single and a walk by Aaron Judge, a double by Gleyber Torres, triples by Aaron Hicks and Dustin Fowler, and two hits apiece by Tyler Wade and Ruben Tejada. Yay offense.

Michael Pineda started and allowed two runs in three innings. He struck out one. People in attendance told me Pineda didn’t look too sharp. So it goes. Chase Shreve allowed a three-run homer to Matt Tuiasosopo, who is still kicking around, apparently. Ben Heller (1.2 innings) and Joe Mantiply (two innings) both had scoreless outings. Here is the box score for today’s game. It wasn’t televised, so there are no video highlights. (The video above is from yesterday’s game.) Here is everything else that happened down in Spring Training:

  • Joe Girardi said the first round of cuts could come this weekend. My guess is Torres, Jorge Mateo, James Kaprielian, Chance Adams, and Justus Sheffield are among those sent out. The big leaguers are playing more and more now, and the kids need to play regularly to prepare for the season themselves, so minor league camp it is. It’s that time. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Girardi added he is a big Jordan Montgomery fan. “Oh, I like him. We like him … I think you’ll see him continue to develop and get better and better, but I think he’s a guy that could possibly help us this year,” said the skipper. [Kuty]

Here is the open thread for the evening. MLB Network is showing a World Baseball Classic game right now (Canada vs. Dominican Republic) and will have more at 9pm ET (Mexico vs. Italy), 12am ET (Australia vs. Cuba), and 5am ET (China vs. Japan). Australia vs. Cuba will be on tape delay. The other three games are live. All three local hockey teams are in action tonight as well, plus there’s a bunch of college hoops on the schedule. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

The White Sox are scouting the Yankees for a possible Jose Quintana trade, because of course they are

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees remain in the mix for White Sox southpaw Jose Quintana. Or at least the White Sox hope they do. According to George King, the ChiSox have been scouting the Yankees all throughout Spring Training in preparation for a potential Quintana trade. Bruce Levine recently reported the Yankees are one of four clubs “believed to be dug into the sweepstakes” for the left-hander. The Astros, Cardinals, and Pirates are the others.

“I think our asks are commensurate with what we are willing to give up,” said White Sox GM Rick Hahn to Joel Sherman. “We are open. We did deals with Boston and Washington, teams with World Series aspirations. Clubs like ours are focused more on the future and so if we are helping someone win in the short term, we have to feel they are helping us win in the long term.”

The Yankees have been connected to Quintana since December, when the ChiSox decided to commit to their rebuild by trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. At one point it was reported Quintana talks were expanded to include David Robertson. The White Sox, weirdly, haven’t done much of anything since the Sale and Eaton trades; Quintana, Robertson, Todd Frazier, Nate Jones, and Melky Cabrera remain in their employ. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. This passes the sniff test. Does it make sense the Yankees would want Quintana? Yes. He’s very good, he’ll spend the entire 2017 season at age 28, and he’s signed affordably for another four years ($35.35M total). Does it also make sense the White Sox identified the Yankees as a realistic trade partner for Quintana, so much so that they’re scouting them this spring? Yes! The Yankees have one of the best farm systems in baseball, with both the high-end talent to headline a big trade package and the depth to provide quality second, third, and fourth pieces. Trade rumors can be a tricky business with lots of nonsense. There’s something to this one though. It’s not outlandish.

2. The Yankees sure could use a pitcher like Quintana. Obvious statement is obvious. Every team could use a pitcher like Quintana. He’s really good! But, at the moment, the Yankees have very little established pitching under contract/team control beyond 2017. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will both be free agents after the season and Masahiro Tanaka figures to use his opt-out if he stays healthy. Imagine a rotation without those guys. Oy vey.

The Yankees are committed to their youth movement, so much so that two of Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green will be in the rotation on Opening Day. And, as always, the odds are strongly in favor of all four of them (and possibly others!) making starts this year. No team goes through a season with five starters these days. With any luck, one or two or three of those guys will emerge as long-term rotation going forward. That’d be cool.

The thing is, even if that happens, there’s still room in the rotation for Quintana. It’s not Quintana or Severino, Quintana or Cessa, or anything like that. The Yankees can have all of ’em. There’s no such thing as a blocked pitching prospect. Quintana is right smack in the prime of his career and he’s signed well-below market. He’d fit in well with the youth movement and the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. It’s hard to find another starter who does both so well (and is actually available).

3. Don’t forget to trade your prospects. My stupid and long-running shtick is intended to serve as a reminder that putting all your eggs in the prospect basket is going to lead to a lot of heartbreak. They don’t all work out, that’s why it’s good and necessary to build a deep farm system like the Yankees have. If you’re going to sit on your prospects, you’ll inevitably be left with a lot of nothing. It’s okay to trade some of them. Consider the last two World Series:

  • 2016: The Cubs traded prospects for Aroldis Chapman and the Indians traded prospects for Andrew Miller. Cleveland also agreed to trade prospects for Jonathan Lucroy before he invoked his no-trade clause.
  • 2015: The Royals traded prospects for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. The Mets traded prospects for Yoenis Cespedes (and Addison Reed and Tyler Clippard).

Trading prospects for high-end veterans tends to look good for the team getting the veterans when it’s all said and done. (There are always exceptions, and hopefully the Chapman and Miller deals are two of ’em.)

Now, I’m not saying the Yankees should go out and gut their farm system by trading for every available veteran. I’m saying that when someone like Quintana comes along, a very good and young and affordable player who fills a glaring long-term need, it’s okay to deal from that prospect depth. The Yankees have the pieces to make a strong offer while still having an excellent farm system.

4. Yes, I am for trading for Quintana. I guess I should make that clear. I am totally for a Quintana trade. Just don’t ask me to put together a trade package. My trade proposal sucks. The White Sox smartly emphasized quality over quantity (and positional needs) in the Sale and Eaton trades, so I doubt this is a “cobble together four prospects you don’t like and send them to Chicago” situation. Getting a pitcher like Quintana is going to hurt.

Obviously some prospects are more tradeable than others. Trading Gleyber Torres would be tough to swallow and the good news is the Yankees presumably have the pieces to swing a Quintana deal without including Gleyber. Would a package led by, say, Clint Frazier and James Kaprielian be enough? Aaron Judge and Justus Sheffield? Jorge Mateo and Severino? It’s cool to have options and not just have to say “the trade needs to include this one specific guy because he’s the organization’s only elite prospect.” Point is, it’s okay to trade some prospects for a really good pitcher, especially when you have a lot of prospects.

The Frustrating Chase Headley [2017 Season Preview]

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

To say that Chase Headley‘s first full season in pinstripes was a disappointment would be something of an understatement. Fresh off of a solid 123 wRC+ and stellar 2.8 fWAR in 58 games with the Yankees in 2014, expectations for Headley were at least a bit high – and the resultant 4-year, $52 MM contract that he inked that off-season didn’t help matters. He responded with, as Mike detailed this time last year, the worst season of his career, posting his lowest wRC+ ever, and his worst WAR since moving to third full-time after the 2009 season.

The existence of Jacoby Ellsbury prevented Headley from becoming the focus of the Yankees fanbase’s collective ire, but there was quite a bit of discussion about the three years remaining on his deal, and Rob Refsnyder learning the hot corner was far more newsworthy than it otherwise would (or should) have been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2016 was a make or break year – in hindsight or otherwise – but the word ‘albatross’ was thrown around at least a bit.

And Headley, of course, responded with a borderline carbon copy of his 2015 season in the batter’s box:

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Even with an improved walk rate and a bit more pop, Headley remained a below-average hitter (comfortably below the positional wRC+ of 106 in 2016), ranking 21st among qualified third basemen in wRC+. This may just be who he is as he enters his age-33 season, but there are some positives beneath the surface.

He Remembered How to Play Defense

The worst aspect of Headley’s 2015 was his defense. The former Gold Glover made 23 errors, nearly doubling his previous career-high of 13 (set in his first year at the position), posting a fielding percentage twelve points below the league-average. Twenty players qualified for the Gold Glove at the hot corner in 2015, and Headley ranked 15th in Defensive Runs Saved 15th in UZR/150, 19th in fielding percentage, and 20th in errors (with career-worst marks across the board). And, given the lasting impressions of his throwing issues and the agreement between advanced and old-fashioned metrics, he was just as bad as those numbers suggest.

Last year represented a defensive about-face for Headley, as he improved across the board to a staggering extent. If you prefer basic statistics, he made 13 fewer errors, and improved his fielding percentage from .946 to .974. If advanced metrics are more your speed, his DRS jumped from -6 to 7, and his UZR went from -3 to 6.6.

Put simply, he looked far more comfortable at the position (and much more like the guy that the Yankees acquired in the Summer of 2014).

What About His Bat?

Headley ended 2015 with a whimper, batting .179/.252/.223 (32 wRC+) between September and October. That impotence continued into 2016, as he hit just .150/.268/.150 (22 wRC+) in April, and did not pick up his first extra base hit until May 12.

Things started to improve dramatically from there, and Headley swung a hot bat for the next two and a half months. Selective endpoints are tricky, to be sure, but he batted .293/.360/.482 with 10 HR (127 wRC+) from May 12 through the end of July, and hopes started to rise.

And then he hit .232/.322/.361 with 4 HR (83 wRC+) over the last two months, coming full circle in replicating his 2015 season. Here’s a visualization of his streakiness:

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His 2016 breaks down as an awful month and a half, two and a half very good months, and two well below-average months … which is actually quite similar to his 2015 (even if the order is a bit different):

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So where are those positives that I mentioned?

As I mentioned earlier, Headley’s walk rate improved by 1.7 percentage points, and his ISO jumped from .110 to .133. Both marks are skewed somewhat, as league-averages jumped, as well, but Headley’s improvements were notable nonetheless. He also started running the bases again, picking up 8 SB and adding 3.9 runs per BsR, which is something that he simply didn’t do in 2015. And most everything else (including his swing percentages) eked closer to his career norms.


If we buy into Headley’s sustained mid-season hot streak and the signs that he’s trending back towards his career norms, it stands to reason that he could bounce-back to being a league-average hitter. Interestingly enough, PECOTA sees something that suggests a modest improvement, projecting a .251/.333/.400 slash line with 16 HR, good for a .259 TAv. For reference, a .260 TAv is average, and Headley’s marks in 2015 and 2016 were .245 and .248, respectively.

It’s certainly reasonable to expect Headley to continue to play defense at a high level, and I think he’ll do that. And if his bat can find its way into league-average territory – which I remain split on – he could be a 3 win player in 2017. I’d be thrilled with that, and I’m sure the Yankees would be, too.