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(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

When it comes to building the roster and making moves, the Yankees tend to be very reactionary. That is out of necessity more than anything; it’s tough to implement a plan when your farm system has been as unproductive as the team’s has been these last few years. The Yankees rely on free agency to fill holes and they pay premium prices not because they can, but because they have to.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a potential contract extension for David Robertson, which might have given the team a closer at a setup man price, but that ship seems to have sailed. Robertson avoided arbitration with a one-year contract a few weeks ago and he’ll become a free agent next winter looking for that closer contract. Another The only other player on the roster who would be worth considering an extension for is Ivan Nova, the just turned 27-year-old right-hander who figures to slot in as the number four starter come Opening Day.

There is no real reason for the Yankees to have any urgency when it comes to locking Nova up right now. The two sides avoided arbitration with a one-year contract worth $3.3M a few weeks ago, so he’s signed for this coming season and remains under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two years after that. Nova won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season, and, as everyone learned the hard way with Chien-Ming Wang, a pitcher’s career could go south in an instant no matter how promising he seems. There is risk anytime you sign a player long-term and that is especially true with pitchers.

As MLBTR’s Extensions Tracker shows, most starting pitchers at Nova’s service time level who signed extensions only signed for two years. All those contracts did was give the player a small amount of security and the team cost certainty. Those pitchers were still arbitration-eligible one last time after the extension expired and their free agency was not pushed back. That type of contract would make no sense for the Yankees since Nova is already signed for 2014 and they can afford whatever raise he’ll get for 2015. Signing Nova would be about keeping him beyond his arbitration years and (hopefully) saving some money in the process.

The only four pitchers at Nova’s service time level to sign extensions of at least three guaranteed years in the not too distant past are:

Nova Johnny Cueto Ervin Santana Paul Maholm Scott Kazmir
Platform Year bWAR 3.6 2.2 5.0 4.0 5.8
Platform Year fWAR 2.5 2.6 6.0 2.4 5.1
Career bWAR 7.9 4.5 8.3 8.2 13.5
Career fWAR 6.7 5.1 12.1 5.7 13.2
Years ? 4 4 3 3
Dollars ? $27M $30M $14.5M $28.5M
Options Years? ? 1 1 1 1

Maholm is the best comparable to Nova, at least in terms of bWAR and fWAR, but the Yankees can forget all about paying him only $14.5M for his three arbitration years. They’re already paying him $3.3M for his first year, meaning Ivan would have to agree to a $5.6M average annual salary for his second and third years. That would be a huge discount. Maholm signed that extension prior to the 2009 season, so it’s pretty outdated. Same goes for the Kazmir deal too.

Santana and Cueto signed away their three arbitration years for $17.8M and $16.2M, respectively, which averages out to $17M even. Nova’s salary would have to jump to roughly $5.7M in 2015 and $8.1M in 2016 ($2.4M raise each year) to match that, which is pretty reasonable. John Danks went from $3.45M to $6M to $8M during his three arbitration years while Matt Garza went from $3.35M to $5.95M to $9.5M during his three arb years, just for comparison. The Santana/Cueto extension framework seems to work for Nova.

Now, would Nova take a four year deal in the $27-30M range (plus an option!)? Who knows. His bonus was only $80k when he signed out of the Dominican Republic, so he doesn’t have that huge seven-figure bonus tucked away somewhere. He might jump at the security. Nova has been pretty erratic these last few years and the Yankees might not like the idea of risking that much money on a pitcher who is still something of an unknown. That said, look at some recent extensions signed by pitchers who were two years away from free agency:

Matt Harrison Brandon Morrow Josh Johnson
Platform Year bWAR 6.1 1.2 6.6
Platform Year fWAR 3.6 3.4 5.5
Career bWAR 9.5 5.0 12.0
Career fWAR 8.8 8.1 10.0
Years 5.0 3.0 4.0
Dollars $55M $21M $39M
Option Years? 1 1 Nope

Morrow isn’t a good reference point because he started his career in the bullpen and had only two years as a starter by time he accrued four full years of service time. Harrison’s deal and Johnson’s deal average $10.4M annually while Santana’s and Cueto’s deals average $7.1M annually. If the Yankees wait a year to extend Nova and he goes on to have a pretty good (not even great) 2014 season, locking him up will be substantially more expensive, about $3M per year more expensive. The sooner they get it done, the more they save, and that’s just smart business regardless of whether the team has a $50M payroll or a $200M payroll.

The Yankees have softened on their archaic no extensions policy in recent years, most notably by trying to lock up Russell Martin, Robinson Cano, and Hiroki Kuroda. The problem with those three was that the team waited until they were only one year away from free agency, and when a guy can see the light at the end of the free agent tunnel, it’s tough to talk him out of exploring the open market. I understand why the Yankees would be hesitant to sign Nova long-term, but doing it now could potentially save a ton of money and allow them to get out ahead of the market for once.

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(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

It has been less than two weeks since the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract, and two weeks from today pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa. That doesn’t leave much time for Tanaka to get his affairs in order, including securing a visa.

In an effort to make sure their new pitcher arrives to camp in time, the Yankees enlisted the help of New York Senator Chuck Schumer to make sure the paperwork was taken care of properly. From Anthony McCarron:

“My office works tirelessly to help constituents every single day, but it’s not often you get a call from a constituent like the New York Yankees,” Schumer said. “You see, the Yankees called me a couple of days ago to say they were worried about Masahiro Tanaka getting to Spring Training on time due to the length of time it can take for foreign players to get a visa.

“Foreign baseball players apply for something called a P-visa and the whole process can take up to a month; but with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 14th, it was very possible he wasn’t going to make it. So I made sure we had someone go to the mailroom at USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), pull his application and get it processed quickly – something I have done in the past for the Mets as well, when they had a similar issue with Jose Reyes.”

“Now the Yankees’ star free agent will be able to join the team at spring training with everyone else,” Schumer added. “As a lifelong Yankee fan who is hoping for another World Series this year, I could not be happier.”

Imagine if the Yankees had spent all that time waiting for the posting system to be revised and negotiating with Tanaka only to have his debut be delayed by paperwork. Must be nice to have those kinda connections, eh?

(I’m leaving the comments open but I reserve the right to close them if things get too politicy.)

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(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

As of right now, the Yankees are heading into the season with only one infielder devoid of injury concerns. Both Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Derek Jeter (leg) are coming off lost seasons while Brian Roberts appeared in only 192 of 648 possible games over the last four years due to a myriad of problems (concussion, hip, hamstring). Even Scott Sizemore, a depth pickup on a minor league deal, is an injury risk after tearing and re-tearing his ACL.

The only infielder who will come to camp without some kind of physical concern is Kelly Johnson, who was signed to be a bench player back in early-December. Now he is expected to hold down an everyday job with Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez no longer with the team. Johnson has been on the DL twice in parts of nine big league seasons, once for Tommy John surgery (2006) and again for wrist inflammation (2009). The elbow reconstruction cost him the entire year, the wrist only two weeks. Otherwise he’s been healthy and durable.

With Cano in Seattle and the rest of his infield-mates questionable, at least until they show up to camp and prove the injuries are behind them, Johnson is going to have to be Joe Girardi‘s anchor on the infield. The guy he knows he will be able to trot out there everyday without having to ask him how he feels before each game. The Rays used him as a super utility guy last summer — the role he was initially expected to fill when he signed with New York — but Johnson has been an everyday player before and he’ll get the chance to be one again. At age 31 (32 next month), he’s the young guy on the infield.

This isn’t just a “he needs to stay on the field” thing either. It’s not unreasonable to question how much Jeter and Roberts can contribute offensively at their age, ditto Teixeira given the nature of his injury. Jacoby Ellsbury was given a boatload of money to set the table from the leadoff spot and the trio of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano will be tasked with producing from the middle of the order. Johnson won’t (or shouldn’t, really) be asked to contribute significantly at the plate, but he needs to be something more than a zero from the bottom third of the order.

With the Rays last year, Johnson hit .235/.305/.410 (101 wRC+) with 16 homers and seven steals in 407 plate appearances. That’s perfectly representative of his game: low average but enough walks (9.8% from 2011-13) and power (16+ homers in four straight years) to remain league average. He’ll even steal some bases (four seasons of 10+ steals). Yeah, Johnson will strike out a bunch (26.3% from 2011-13) and he probably needs a platoon partner (98 wRC+ against righties and 73 against lefties from 2011-13), but what did you expect from a $3M signing? Hopefully Yankee Stadium boosts his offense some.

Given how the offseason has played out and the general uncertainty with the infield, Johnson has already gone from being an excellent part-timer to an important everyday guy. The Yankees and Girardi are going to have their hands full keeping Jeter and Roberts healthy and productive, and in-house alternatives like Sizemore, Dean Anna, and Eduardo Nunez are hardly appealing. The team needs Johnson to stay on the field and provide some offense from the bottom of the order. He’s already climbed the depth chart from role player to everyday guy even before the start of Spring Training and there doesn’t appear to be any more help on the way.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

I can’t imagine this has been a comfortable offseason for Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees’ incumbent backup infielder and wannabe shortstop of the future has watched the team give Derek Jeter a raise, re-sign Brendan Ryan, sign Kelly Johnson, trade for Dean Anna, and sign Scott Sizemore. They’re still looking for infield help too, so there could be even more names added to the list. That’s a lot of moves involving players who play the same positions as Nunez.

Even before these moves, it was obvious the Yankees needed to prioritize middle infield depth this offseason. There was never a chance Jeter was leaving, even if he declined his player option. That just wasn’t happening. But, as we saw last year, he is not invincible and the team needed a better backup plan. That’s where Ryan comes into play. He can’t hit a lick but you can run him out there on an everyday basis if need be because of his slick glovework. Anna can play the two middle infield spots and has some nice on-base skills, plus he was basically free, so why not? Johnson and Sizemore are second and third baseman but two more infielders nonetheless.

None of this is good news for Nunez. Or at least it isn’t a vote of confidence, I should say. If the team had any real faith in his ability to play shortstop on a full-time basis should Jeter go down with another injury, they probably wouldn’t have given Ryan two years (and an option!) so early in the offseason. That just doesn’t strike me as something you do if you have a 26-year-old shortstop you believe in long-term. Am I wrong? If Nunez had shown any improvement with the glove — his throwing was way better early last year but that didn’t last — or more promise with the bat, finding a replacement for 2014 and 2015 wouldn’t have been much of a priority.

It’s not all bad news, however. Nunez did keep his job while others infielders like Jayson Nix and David Adams were non-tendered weeks ago. That’s better than the alternative. Cutting Nix was an obvious move given his projected salary ($1.4M) but keeping Nunez over Adams was not a given. Both players have a minor league option remaining and both will earn something close to the league minimum in 2014, so that stuff wasn’t a factor. The Yankees decided Nunez, who has a standout tool in his speed (and ability to make contact, really), was the one worth keeping. I know what Adams has done over the years and I’m not convinced the team made the wrong move, especially since Sizemore is almost the exact same player. Betting on the guy who can run and consistently put the ball in play is not unreasonable.

“[Nunez] has options and he could be a utility player. I wouldn’t want to start him [at third]. Regardless how he feels about it, I would want to find someone that I feel more comfortable with,” said Brian Cashman to George King earlier this winter, making it clear the Yankees have knocked Nunez down the depth chart a peg or two. There is only so much patience you can show with a guy who, even if everything breaks right, still projects to be a solid regular more than a star. In a perfect world, Jeter will play shortstop next year with Ryan backing him up and Nunez sitting Triple-A, rotating between second and short with Anna. That’s the best situation for the Yankees but a big step down for Nunez, who probably sees it coming.

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One of the 115 homers Granderson slugged in his four years with the Yanks. (Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

One of the 115 homers Granderson slugged in his four years with the Yanks. (Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Four winters ago, the Yankees faced a dilemma. Should they bring back Johnny Damon, a huge part of the 2009 World Series Championship team, or move in a different, younger direction?

During the season it actually looked like the Yankees would sign Damon for another two or three years. Given his productivity for the previous two years, and the life of the original four-year contract in general, this seemed like a decent enough idea.

Alas, it was not meant to be. After winning the World Series they did make Damon a two-year, $14 million offer, which he did not accept. With a need remaining in the outfield, and purportedly without the budget to sign Matt Holliday, the Yankees turned to the trade market.

Once we learned that Granderson would become available, the fit seemed logical enough. While the Yankees didn’t necessarily need a center fielder, with both Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner on the roster, they certainly needed an outfielder with some pop.

At the Winter Meetings, Cashman pulled the trigger on a three-team trade that cost the Yankees top prospect Austin Jackson, left-handed reliever Phil Coke, and starter Ian Kennedy. The price might have seemed a little steep at the time, and even steeper in hindsight. Was the trade worthwhile in the end?

The case at the time

When the Yankees sent those three players to the Tigers and Diamondbacks, the case was easy enough to make. With the losses of Damon and Hideki Matsui, the Yankees needed an outfielder with some pop. If they weren’t going to sign Matt Holliday (because they certainly weren’t going to sign Jason Bay), a trade was the only avenue to that end. Granderson was the best outfielder available on the trade market at the time, so the Yankees were right to pursue him.

The other end lies in what they traded. Few, if any, would miss Phil Coke and his pointing to the sky on home run balls. Ian Kennedy rubbed fans, and likely the organization, the wrong way during his horrible 2008 season. Perhaps he could have pitched himself into a spot on the team in 2009 had he not suffered an aneurysm and missed most of the season. Then again, maybe he just would have been dealt at the deadline.

Losing Jackson certainly hurt, but with the losses of Damon and Matsui, the Yankees did need a little pop. Jackson didn’t hit for much power in the minors, and at the time it was reasonable to think he’d show as much in the majors as Brett Gardner. The potential was there, sure, but the Yankees needed more of a sure thing. It was difficult to argue with the Granderson trade at the time.

Looking back

After a rough first four months in New York, which involved a hamstring injury, Granderson started to turn it around when he put in some serious work with hitting coach Kevin Long. He not only finished the 2010 season strongly, but he had a phenomenal postseason, going 10 for 28 with two doubles, a homer, and a huge triple off Francisco Liriano in Game 1 of the ALDS.

Jackson, for his part, put up decent numbers in his rookie year, though he lead the league in strikeouts. His defense dazzled at times. Earlier in the season it did appear that the Yankees might have been better off just keeping him, but by season’s end it was clear Granderson was coming around.

The kicker came in 2011, when Granderson belted 41 home runs while leading the AL in both runs and RBI. That’s the kind of year that changes the entire thinking on a trade. Not only did Jackson tank, with an 88 OPS+, but it was unlikely he’d ever perform anywhere near that level even in his best-case scenario.

That one year is really what the Yankees can hang their hat on. Jackson came back with a strong 2012 and good 2013, accumulating 14.6 WAR since the trade. Granderson put up only 13.9 during his time as a Yankee. This isn’t the best comparison, of course; defensive values are sketchy, and Granderson has clearly been the better hitter over the last four years (120 OPS+ vs. 105).

Ian Kennedy, for his part, found some success after leaving the Yankees. After a rocky April he went on to produce a 3.68 ERA in the final five months of the 2010 season, and then followed it up with a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting in 2011. Oh, what could have been.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Kennedy would have achieved that kind of success as a Yankee. Had he not suffered the aneurysm in 2009 he might have gotten another shot at consistent starts, since the Yankees were hurting for starters towards the end of the season. Had he failed to impress then, chances are he wouldn’t have gotten another shot. Arizona, coming off a 70-92 season, could afford to let Kennedy settle in.

The question in this trade comes down to how you value Granderson’s 2011 specifically, and his hitting in general. The Yankees needed that high-end production, and for at least one year they got it. Though he performed a bit worse in 2012, getting another 40-homer season certainly helps make the trade look a bit more favorable.

Long-term, the Yankees clearly would have been better served holding onto Jackson. He’s had one very good year to go with a few average ones, he plays stellar defense, and he’s still under team control for two more years. In an ideal world, they can keep him and let him play. But where they were at the time, in need of some outfield power, Granderson made a bit more sense.

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Jan
13

A-Rod’s Suspension: Now What?

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(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

We were waiting months for Saturday’s announcement. Alex Rodriguez was officially suspended for the entire 2014 season after arbitrator Fredric Horowitz upheld MLB’s original 211-game ban but reduced the terms to a mere 162 games. A-Rod has also been suspended for the postseason, should the Yankees qualify. He’s out of the year, officially.

Even though we all kinda knew Alex was going to be suspended when it was all said and done, we really didn’t know how long he would sidelined. Fifty games? A hundred? The full season? Now we know it will be the entire year and, more importantly, now the Yankees know. They finally have payroll and roster clarity and can move forward with the rest of the offseason. Let’s break down how A-Rod’s suspension impacts the team.

40-Man Roster Implications
This is easiest, so let’s get it out of the way first. Rodriguez will be on the restricted list during the suspension, meaning he does not count against the 40-man roster even though he is technically still on it. It’s similar to the 60-day DL. That now open 40-man spot will go to Brian Roberts once his one-year contract is made official, which Joel Sherman says has happened. The team hasn’t announced anything yet though.

Can He Play Elsewhere?
Not without the Yankees’ permission. A-Rod is still under contract with the Yankees and they’d have to give him the okay to play in an independent league or overseas. (Korea and Japan honor MLB suspensions, so they aren’t an option anyway.) There is no reason for the Yankees to give him permission to play elsewhere either. They still owe him a boatload of money and don’t want some independent league coach or trainer working with him. The team has to protect its investment, basically.

Payroll Implications
Even though he has been suspended for the full year, A-Rod will still count as $3,155,737.70 against the luxury tax according to Sherman. His actual take home salary will be a little south of that (roughly $2.9M) since his 2014 salary ($25M) is lower than his contract’s luxury tax hit ($27.5M). Rodriguez was suspended 162 games but the regular season actually runs 183 days, so, in essence, the team is still financially responsible for their off-days.

Even with A-Rod almost completely off the books, the Yankees are right up against the $189M luxury tax threshold. I don’t see how they can get under without going cheap in the rotation and bullpen while shedding some salary (Brett Gardner?). They did come into about $22M of extra “real money” thanks to the suspension, money that figures to go to the pitching staff. Masahiro Tanaka is the obvious target but that money could lead to more bullpen help as well. Heck, maybe they’ll add someone like Ubaldo Jimenez even if they do sign Tanaka. That’d be neat. Don’t think it’ll happen though. Point is, the suspension saves the Yankees a bunch of cash, both real dollars and dollars against the luxury tax.

Injunction Junction, Some More Dysfunction
Last week we heard Alex could take the case to a federal judge and seek an injuction if his camp felt the ruling was too harsh, something he reiterated in his statement on Saturday:

I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner, and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension. No player should have to go through what I have been dealing with, and I am exhausting all options to ensure not only that I get justice, but that players’ contracts and rights are protected through the next round of bargaining, and that the MLB investigation and arbitration process cannot be used against others in the future the way it is currently being used to unjustly punish me.

This morning, A-Rod’s lawyer Joe Tacopina confirmed they will file the suit seeking the injunction today.

There are a shocking number of lawyers writing about baseball these days (including Ben) and from what they’ve all said, A-Rod’s camp is going to have a very difficult time getting a federal judge to look at this case. They tend to steer clear of collectively bargained matters unless there is gross misconduct or something like that. Rodriguez will have to show Horowitz was essentially working with MLB, as Wendy Thurm explained a few weeks ago.

The only thing I know for sure at this point is that if the case goes to federal court and a judge issues an injunction against the suspension, A-Rod will be allowed to play, just as he was allowed to play during his appeal late last year. It is a very unlikely outcome but not completely impossible.

Spring Training
Rodriguez confirmed through spokesman Ron Berkowitz that he plans to attend Spring Training in a few weeks, which is his right. The Joint Drug Agreement says suspended players are allowed to participate in camp and even play exhibition games. The Yankees and MLB are going to get together sometime soon to figure out a way to prevent this from happening, according to Andrew Marchand. I don’t know how likely that is; the Collective Bargaining Agreement and JDA are pretty airtight. If they keep him out against the rules, Rodriguez could file a grievance, which would add legitimacy to his whole “MLB and the Yankees are conspiring to get me out of the game” allegation.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

If push comes to shove and A-Rod reports to Spring Training next month, Marchand says the Yankees can simply assign him to minor league camp in an effort to minimize the circus and keep him away from the big leaguers. The could even go as far as instructing their coaches to ignore him — to not hit him grounders during infield practice or throw him batting practice. They could also keep him out of Grapefruit League games by arguing he will not play this year and they need the games for the players on the roster to prepare. One thing I do know about Alex is that he truly loves playing baseball and Spring Training gives him a chance to get on the field. I’m curious to see how this how situation plays out in the coming weeks.

Why Don’t They Just Release Him?
I don’t think A-Rod will ever play another game. Not in the big leagues and certainly not for the Yankees. That’s just my opinion. I think the team will cut ties with him at some point, likely next winter after his suspension is over. It’ll be a Barry Bonds situation — plenty of teams will need help at third base in 2015 but no one will bother to give him a chance because his production isn’t worth the distraction. Remember, Bonds was way better during his final year (157 wRC+) than A-Rod was last year (113 wRC+).

So, if that is the case, why don’t the Yankees simply release Rodriguez now? They would still reap the payroll benefits of his suspension and they wouldn’t have to deal with the potential Spring Training headache. I suppose there are several answers to this question but the easiest is that A-Rod could still do something in 2014 that gives the team a way out of all or part of the remainder of his contract. Maybe he tears an ACL playing basketball like Aaron Boone, allowing the team to void his contract. Maybe he fails a drug test and gets another suspension. Maybe he gets hurt during a workout and the team can recoup some salary through insurance. All sorts of stuff can happen between now and next year that helps the Yankees.

Eating $61M — Rodriguez’s total salary from 2015-17 — is a tough pill to swallow but it’s tough to see an alternative at this point. He will be almost 40 years old when his suspension is over and he will have missed nearly two full years. Coming back from that might be damn near impossible. Plus the team obviously wants nothing to do with him. They’d like him to just go away. It’s not my money, but it seems inevitable that the Yankees will release A-Rod, eat the remainder of his contract, and walk away from the distraction at some point. I’ll be surprised if he ever plays another game, especially in pinstripes.

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(Rob Carr/Getty)

(Rob Carr/Getty)

There are less than two weeks left in Masahiro Tanaka‘s signing period, and if the Yankees manage to lure him to New York, an argument can be made they signed the two best free agent starters this winter. The team re-upped Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $16M contract weeks ago, but because he was re-signed and not brought in from another team, it doesn’t really feel like an addition. It’s weird.

A few days ago, Kuroda spoke to Sponichi Annex about all sorts of interesting and important topics. A reader (@iyasuN) was kind enough to send me a translation … like a real translation, not some Google translate gibberish. Kuroda discussed a whole bunch of stuff, so here’s a point-by-point rundown.

On playing in 2014

Kuroda said he seriously considered retirement this offseason and spoke to Hideki Matsui — he holds Matsui in very high regard among his peers (they’re the same age) — about walking away at Mariano Rivera‘s retirement ceremony in September. Matsui told Kuroda he retired because “he did everything he could and he was done.” Because he is healthy and doesn’t have any physical problems (like Matsui’s knees), Kuroda decided to return for another season. He is very much year-to-year at this point of his career, however.

On re-signing with the Yankees

Once he decided to pitch another season, Kuroda gave the Yankees “top priority” during the offseason. The Hiroshima Carp (his former team in Japan) did contact him over the winter but by then he had already decided to return to New York. If he does ever return to the Japan, it will be for Hiroshima and not another club.

On the Yankees and a contract extension

The Yankees approached Kuroda about an extension the day after he beat the Angels for his 11th win of the season (so August 13th). Hal Steinbrenner specifically told him they were “ready to talk” that day in the Yankee Stadium weight room and soon opened negotiations with his agent. Kuroda was not ready to commit to another year just yet, so nothing came of it. Between Kuroda, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin a few years ago, the Yankees appear to be loosening on that archaic “no extensions” policy.

On his late-season fade

Kuroda was unable to figure out why he struggled so much late in the season, but, in hindsight, he thinks he put too much pressure on himself and worked too hard early in the season, especially as the team struggled. From the beginning of May through the end of July, the Yankees scored a total of 41 runs in his 16 starts, an average of 2.56 runs per start. That’s an awful lot of stressful innings. Kuroda said he simply wore himself out both physically and mentally, and there was nothing in the tank those last few weeks.

On throwing 200+ innings

Although he has thrown at least 200 innings each of the last three seasons, Kuroda isn’t sure how important that is to him. He specifically cited Andy Pettitte, who scaled back his workload later in his career and was successful all season and into the postseason. (Pettitte last threw 200+ innings in 2008.) Given his age, Kuroda indicated he and the team might try to control his workload a bit better next year in an effort to stay fresh for all 162 games and a potential postseason run. He’d rather be a 180+ inning guy who is effective all season than a 200+ inning guy who is out of gas in September. Makes sense to me.

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I mean, obviously I was picking this picture. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

I mean, obviously I was picking this picture. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

With focus on Jacoby Ellsbury and his new $153 million contract, the Yankees acquired another player last night. As many of us slept or vented our feelings about Ellsbury, the Yankees were working on a deal with Kelly Johnson. It’s a mere $2.75 million for one year, or about 1.8 percent of Ellsbury’s contract. But Johnson could be the kind of player the Yankees need to help round out their big-name roster.

During his tenure with the Rays last year, we got a glimpse at Johnson’s versatility. When he came up with the Braves in 2005 he played left field, but after he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2007 (more on that in a moment) he seemed entrenched at second base. That’s where he played for most of the next six seasons, until he hit free agency. When he signed with the Rays, though, he divided his time among four positions: 50 games started in LF, 14 at 2B, 12 at 3B, and 2 at 1B in addition to 18 at DH. That’s the kind of multi-positional player the Yankees have needed for years.

To date the Yankees have signed three free agents, and all three bat from the left side of the plate. That might seem odd for a team that got the league’s worst production from right-handed hitters in 2013. But Johnson can hold his own against same-handed pitchers. For his career he displays no real platoon split, and has actually OPS’d about 10 points higher against left-handed pitching. In recent years he’s performed better against righties; last year he hit all 16 of his homers against righties, though he did have a .337 OBP against lefties.

Johnson’s greatest attribute might be his durability. After missing the 2006 season after undergoing Tommy John, he’s spent just one stint on the DL, missing 17 games in 2009 with wrist tendonitis. Other than that he’s missed just a few games here and there with nagging injuries, although that has totaled just 11 games, not counting his DL stint, since the start of 2007.

One other interesting tidbit about Johnson is his increased production with runners in scoring position. His career OPS jumps from .762 overall to .808 with runners in scoring position — and he matched that .808 OPS with RISP last season.* As friend of RAB Tommy Rancel notes, this might be due to Johnson’s pull tendency. While, as we’ve seen with Mark Teixeira and others, teams will shift the infield on guys like Johnson, they’re less able to do that with runners in scoring position. The extra gaps give him enough room to knock through some ground balls.

*Even better, he hit only 3 of his 16 homers with RISP, and another 4 with a runner on first. In other words, he produced runs from nothing, and additionally knocked in runners with singles, 21 of them, with ducks on the pond. That seems like an ideal distribution to me. Homers are always welcome, and HR with RISP can often mean many runs, but singling in scoring position runners while hitting bases empty homers does have a certain intuitive value.

As long as the Yankees have signed Johnson as a guy who can play different positions on different days, the relationship should work. Johnson has proven himself versatile and durable over the years, traits the Yankees certainly must value after 2013. His ability to hold his own against both lefties and righties means he can reasonably play both sides of the platoon. If, on the other hand, Cano leaves and Johnson becomes his replacement, the Yankees have a lot more work to do. But that was the case with or without Johnson. At least with him they have someone who can competently play the position.

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Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Update: Lookee here: Jeff Passan of Yahoo! reports that the Yankees are showing interest in Anderson, and that he’s expected to be dealt next week at the Winter Meetings. Though given the flurry of recent activity, especially involving the A’s, it doesn’t appear anyone is waiting for the yearly conference to conduct their business.

While improving the offense appears to dominate the Yankees’ free agent agenda early this off-season, the pitching staff still presents a number of issues. Brian Cashman said he had to find 400 innings, meaning two reliable starters, this off-season. They could get 180 or so of those innings if Hiroki Kuroda accepts their offer, but they still have a huge number of innings to fill and not many attractive options on the free agent market.

The trade market looks fairly thin as well, yesterday’s deal involving Doug Fister notwithstanding. David Price might become available, but the Yankees don’t have the pieces to land him even if the Rays deigned to trade him within the division. Beyond that, it’s difficult to identify a team willing to part with an impact starter (except maybe the Red Sox, which is out of the question). That leaves the free agent market, which could inflate given the lack of trade options. Does anyone want Matt Garza for four years and $60 million, or to give up on a draft pick for the two good years Ubaldo Jimenez has produced in his career?

Make no mistake: the Yankees absolutely need two reliable starters this off-season. Getting cute with rotation construction will only compound the issue as the season wears on. Yet two reliable starters will give the Yankees four definites, including CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. For his part, Nova has yet to put together a full, effective season, so he remains something of an unknown. Behind him are David Phelps, Michael Pineda, and Vidal Nuno, all unreliable for one reason or another.

It might seem folly to add yet another unreliable arm to the fold, but it might be a gamble the Yankees need to make. This week we’ve learned that one potentially solid, but unreliable, pitcher has become available. Rumors started early in the off-season that the A’s could trade Brett Anderson, and with the addition of Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million) and Jim Johnson (projected arbitration of around $10 million), they’re almost certainly looking to shed Anderson’s $8 million salary. In fact, just this morning we learned that the A’s are currently discussing an Anderson trade. While the Yankees aren’t mentioned, they could be players if Anderson remains on the A’s for a few more weeks.

Why it works

Bringing in a wild card like Anderson can work if the Yankees get their 400 additional innings from more reliable sources. In that case they’ll have Phelps, Pineda, and Nuno to battle for the fifth spot. Still, given the utter uncertainty of that group, why not add a guy who can perform considerably better than the typical fifth starter on a first-division team?

Despite a poor 2013 outing, Anderson has produced a 3.81 ERA during the parts of his five seasons in the majors (109 ERA+). His strikeout numbers haven’t been particularly impressive, but he has displayed good control a a decent ability to keep the ball in the park (though at Oakland Coliseum). Before he came up Baseball America rated him the No. 7 prospect in the game, a potential he’s shown signs of fulfilling, if it weren’t for that one big issue.

Injuries have plagued Anderson throughout his career. He spent 96 days on the DL in 2010 with elbow problems, and then underwent Tommy John surgery in the middle of 2011. Even after he returned in late 2012 he got hurt, finishing the season on the DL with an oblique strain. In 2013 he suffered an ankle sprain after a rough start in April, but he did come back to strike out 16 in 12.2 innings out of the pen to close out the year.

Why the Yanks can use a wild card

Again, the entire idea of Anderson is predicated on the Yankees acquiring two other reliable starters. To rely on Anderson for 100 innings might not be the best bet. But it’s a bet the Yankees can make, given their current makeup. In fact, if they do find those 400 innings elsewhere, Anderson can be a huge strength.

If the Yankees get two starters, the fifth starter competition is between David Phelps, Michael Pineda, and Vidal Nuno. Phelps is the clear frontrunner before camp even starts, given his experience. At the same time, his value is in his flexibility. The Yanks have shown they can put him in the pen and then have him spot start if the need arises. Given the depletion of the bullpen, he could be valuable in a setup roll, and then come out to make a spot start if needed.

Given Pineda’s recovery from shoulder surgery, he likely should start the season in the minors. He could, for all we know, come out guns blazing in camp after a full off-season of healthy recovery. Who knows. But given what we saw from his rehab efforts, that’s not something anyone can count on. Consider him the first depth option. Nuno is essentially a depth option, not really a fifth starter on a playoff contender (though he has proven people wrong before).

With Anderson in the fold, the Yankees would have depth they could pull from both the bullpen and the minors. That’s the kind of flexibility that allows teams to endure injuries. If Nova isn’t as effective as he was in the second half, if they want to give Kuroda a breather (if he re-signs), if Sabathia gets hurt, they’ll be somewhat covered with depth.

Why it doesn’t work

It’s hard to overlook a guy who has missed, on average, more than 100 games per season in the last four years. There are players who start out as injury guys who, as they reach physical maturity, just stop getting hurt. Anderson, who turns 26 just before pitchers and catchers report, is entering the prime years of his career. He could be one of those guys.

Yet even if he is, it might not happen this year. If Anderson continues to get hurt in his age-26 season, but starts staying healthy at age 27, it does little to help the Yankees. If he spends another year mostly on the DL, they’re not going to pick up his $12 million option for 2015.

As it stands, he’s an $8 million lotto ticket, who will cost the Yankees prospects in addition to the cash. While Oakland might be eager to trade him, they’re still not going to take zeroes in return. Anderson could well fit better on a team with more room to experiment, or a team that’s not trying to sign a number of big free agents.

Whether the Yankees show interest in Anderson depends on their taste for risk. Obviously they’ll first have to address the tangible holes in their rotation. If the A’s decide to deal Anderson before they do that, the Yankees have no shot. While they don’t have to acquire players in order of need, they certainly want to focus their resources on reliably filling their 400-inning gap. After that, if they have the stomach for the risk, Anderson could be an interesting player to watch. When else does a 26-year-old, left-handed, potential No. 3 starter hit the trade market?

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(Marc Serota/Getty)

(Marc Serota/Getty)

At some point soon — probably next week — the Yankees are going to finalize their agreement with catcher Brian McCann. They will add one of the best backstops in baseball at a substantial cost, reportedly $85M across five years with a vesting option for a sixth year. They’re clearly expecting big things out of him and why wouldn’t they? He’s been one of the most productive hitters of the last decade or so, especially relative to his position. Catchers who hit like this are rare.

Because the Yankees invested so much in McCann, they’re likely to look for ways to control his workload behind the plate in an effort to get as much out of him as possible. They want him to catch for all five years of the contract because that’s where he’s the most valuable — McCann is just another guy at first base or DH — even though it may not be realistic. He turns 30 in February and a five-year contract covers the years when most catchers turn into pumpkins, especially guys who have been starters for a long time. All that squatting behind the plate and all those foul tips take their toll.

McCann was a workhorse throughout his career with the Braves. He made his big league debut at age 21 and was an everyday catcher by age 22. From 2006-2012, his age 22-28 seasons, he started at least 113 games behind the plate each year and led all of baseball with 944 games caught total. He was limited to 91 starts at catcher this past season only because he missed April following offseason right shoulder surgery. That’s a lot of wear and tear and the team knows it. They don’t want their new addition to be a full-time DH by year three of a five-year deal.

Thankfully, that DH spot gives the Yankees a little bit of flexibility. It allows them to keep McCann’s bat in the lineup while getting him out from behind the plate for a day. Obviously other players like Derek Jeter will need to rotate through that DH spot — I really don’t like the rotating DH in general, but it’s a necessity for this roster at this point — but there should be enough starts available for McCann throughout the course of the season. Remember, he’s going to be the catcher first and foremost. DH is just an alternative for a day, nothing more.

The Yankees faced between 52-61 left-handed starters in each of the last five seasons, so a straight platoon with presumed backup Frankie Cervelli would limit McCann to roughly 100-110 starts behind the plate next year. That’s a bit below the 123 starts at catcher he averaged from 2006-2012 and it seems like a decent target to me. He could DH another 30-40 games — he will need some full days off of course, catching is hard — and that would get him in the lineup 140-ish times a year.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Well, platoons rarely work out as intended, especially for catchers. Blame injuries and hot/cold streaks and sorts of other unpredictable stuff. At some point next year the Yankees will face nine right-handed starters in nine days, something like that, and that will throw a wrench into everything. The Yankees also might not want to admit their shiny new $85M toy is a platoon player just yet. That stuff does happen. They could run McCann out there everyday against both righties and lefties at first just to see what happens. He did hit lefties from 2010-2012 (104 wRC+), maybe 2013 (72 wRC+) was a blip.

There’s an awful lot of stuff to consider when laying out a plan to keep McCann productive and behind the plate over the next half-decade, including his preferences. McCann might hate being the DH and that would be a factor in how they use him. Ultimately, the team owes him big bucks over the next five years and they should figure out the best way to keep him at catcher for as many of those year as possible. I think that 100-110 starts behind the plate number sounds pretty good because he would still get the majority of the games at catcher while having his workload reduced a bit from recent years. Coming up with a plan that works will be much easier said than done and it will be important. McCann’s going to be here for a while. The Yankees have every reason to look after his long-term well-being.

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