Bullpen Updates: Miller, Robertson, Offers, Trades

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Outside of the Chris Young re-signing, things have been rather quiet around the Yankees this offseason. That all started to change today thanks to a bunch of bullpen-related rumors. Let’s round them all up first, then discuss.

  • The Yankees are in “serious pursuit” of Andrew Miller, according to Buster Olney and Joel Sherman. Nick Cafardo and Dan Connolly add that Miller is in talks with 8-10 teams and is expected to sign soon. Jon Heyman says the lefty is going to wind up with a four-year contract that smashes the previous record for a non-closing reliever, which is Jeremy Affeldt’s three-year, $18M deal with the Giants. I guess Rafael Soriano doesn’t count.
  • David Robertson already has a three-year offer worth $39M in hand from an unknown club according to Heyman, making it very likely he will receive a four-year deal when it’s all said and done. Heyman and Sherman say that even though Brian Cashman continues to praise Robertson, the Yankees appear unwilling to go four years to keep their closer. As a reminder, Robertson is said to be seeking “Papelbon money,” which means a four-year deal in the $50M neighborhood.
  • George King reports the Yankees have talked with clubs about trading for a closer, including the Braves and Marlins. Craig Kimbrel could be available if the Braves go into a total rebuild. The Marlins quietly have an excellent bullpen and could replace pricey closer Steve Cishek ($6.9M projected in 2015) rather easily if they decide to use him in a trade to fill another need.
  • Ken Davidoff reports the Astros have reached out to Robertson’s agent. Houston is said to be seeking a high-end closer this offseason. I’m not sure why, but whatever. Heyman and King say both the Blue Jays and White Sox want a closer this winter and Robertson is on their radar.

Okay. First off, I think the team’s unwillingness to give Robertson a four-year deal is just posturing at this point. I can’t seriously believe they would go four years for Miller but only three for Robertson, not unless they have some kind of serious concern about the health of his arm, and I have no reason to believe that’s the case. Robertson’s better and has a much longer track record of being elite than Miller (four years vs. one a half years).

Now, that said, I don’t think it would be crazy to let Robertson walk, get the draft pick, and sign Miller as a replacement. The Yankees might even be able to sign Miller and someone like Jason Grilli (whom they have interest in) or Luke Gregerson for the same total money it’ll take to sign Robertson, and wind up with an ostensibly deeper bullpen plus a draft pick. If it’s just Miller in place of Robertson, especially if the difference is money is only $1M or $2M per year, then I’d much rather just keep Robertson.

Trading for a closer seems like a weird idea — I don’t like the idea of paying a huge price for Kimbrel and his contract (owed $33M through 2017 with a $13M option for 2018) when you could simply sign Miller or Robertson — but, as always, it depends on the price and the target. I guess I would be in favor of that plan if it kept Dellin Betances in that oh so valuable multi-inning setup role. Heck, even if they sign Miller, I’d rather see someone like Shawn Kelley or Adam Warren close so Betances and Miller could dominate the sixth through eighth innings.

At this point it seems like a foregone conclusion the Yankees will spend big for either Robertson or Miller. I think they’re trying to play hardball with Robertson at the moment — I get the sense their “serious pursuit” of Miller is just a way to pressure Robertson into signing, which probably won’t work if his market is as robust as the reports — but are prepared to move on if necessary. I guess this is how I see this playing out: either Robertson or Miller signs with a team, then the Yankees go hard after the other.

Joe’s obligatory off-season wish list

Let’s cut to the chase: The Yankees need help this off-season. Even after doling out four large contracts last year, they need even more help. With free agents officially allowed to sign with any club, the off-season has begun. What better way to kick it off than with a RAB wish list.

Here we go, in priority order.

Priority #1: Shortstop

For the third straight off-season, shortstop is a position of need for the Yankees. For the past two off-seasons the presence of Derek Jeter has prevented the Yankees from addressing that need in any real way. They now have the opportunity to improve the position. They need it, too: they tied Detroit for lowest OPS at SS in the AL, by 74 points. Jeter’s poor defense is also an easy fix.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that the Yankees will sign Hanley Ramirez.

In a way, it’s tough to see. Ramirez, 31 in December, will command a six- or seven-year deal, probably comparable to the one the Yankees gave Jacoby Ellsbury last off-season. Will they pony up again, for a player who missed nearly half of 2013 and about 20 percent of 2014 with injuries?

Last off-season the Yanks spent big on two position players entering their age-30 seasons. It’s tough to see them going down that path again.

They could trade for Troy Tulowitzki, but he’s signed to a six-year, $118 million deal. The Rockies won’t just give him away, either. He, too, has missed plenty of time due to injury in the last three years. So while his remaining contract is more palatable than what Ramirez will command, the cost in players will make acquiring him less desirable.

To improve production at shortstop, they don’t need too much. There’s no direction to go but up — unless they plan to install Brendan Ryan as the everyday SS. The challenge is finding a player who can provide that kind of upgrade at a reasonable cost in dollars or players.

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

Free agent choice: Stephen Drew. Yes, he was bad in pinstripes. Yes, he might be better with an actual spring training. He can play defense and has hit well in the past. He’ll also get nothing more than a make-good contract, again, so he’s a potential bargain. He’s certainly a better bet than Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera, who will both get bigger contracts and are both not very good on defense.

Trade choice: Didi Gregorius. Not many teams have spare shortstops, but the Diamondbacks do have a number of youngsters. It seems they have the most interest in trading Gregorius, which is sensible given his service time and mediocre bat. But again, that bat is considerably better than what the Yankees produced at SS in 2014, and plays seemingly average defense, there could be a match.

Priority #2: Starting pitching

(Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

The following starting pitchers on the 40-man roster, with MLB experience, will be back with the Yankees next year: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, Chase Whitley, Shane Greene, Bryan Mitchell, David Phelps. There is also Ivan Nova, but he might not be back until the All-Star break following Tommy John surgery.

That’s not exactly a group you can rely on. Of those eight, five spent significant time on the DL in 2014. Whitley is not someone you want starting in anything other than an emergency situation. Mitchell has what, one start? Greene might be good as a fifth starter, but the Yanks need guys ahead of him.

It seems pretty clear, then, that the Yankees need to upgrade at starting pitcher. They might want to do so in a major way, too.

Step One: Re-sign McCarthy. Whatever went on between McCarthy and Larry Rothschild worked. McCarthy enjoyed his time in NY and thinks the two sides are a great fit. Get this done, and get another solid starter in the rotation.

Step Two: Sign Jon Lester. MLBTR predicts the Yankees sign Scherzer, and that’s a possibility. But Lester has AL East experience, is a lefty, and doesn’t come with a draft pick price tag. Competition for his services will be high, but the Yankees should be right at the top of the pack.

Priority #3: Another infielder

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

Relying on Alex Rodriguez to play even 81 games at third base is a mistake. They could start him there and put Martin Prado at second base, moving Prado to 3B and calling up Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela to play 2B when A-Rod gets hurt. But it might be best to plan on A-Rod playing no third base and deepening the infield corps.

We learned recently that the Yankees have begun negotiations with Chase Headley, and that makes plenty of sense. With him manning the hot corner, and Prado at 2B, the Yankees have strengthened the infield considerably without even addressing shortstop. A modest upgrade there, and some improvement from Teixeira, will go a long way to improving the team’s most glaring 2014 weakness.

What about Refsnyder? Prado is versatile, and has covered third base and the corner outfield positions in the past. Should the Yankees face an injury there, he can slide over and make room for Refsnyder. The idea isn’t to block him — he needs a chance to prove himself — but instead to create a strong starting corps and let Refsnyder act as depth.

Priority #4: Bullpen

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The Royals proved what Yankees fans have known forever: a lockdown bullpen can carry an otherwise unremarkable team. Yet rarely will a team go through a season with three lockdown guys not getting hurt or overworked. The Royals got lucky. The Yankees need options.

Step One: Re-sign David Robertson, whether to the qualifying offer or a multi-year deal. He’s proven his mettle in New York, and the Yankees could use a closer like him.

Step Two: Sign Andrew Miller. Going into the season with a bullpen consisting of Robertson, Miller, Dellin Betances, Jacob Lindgren, Adam Warren, and Shawn Kelley will provide them with a deep core, allowing them to test guys like Jose Ramirez and maybe even Manny Banuelos.

Even after a busy off-season in 2013, the Yankees need even more in order to avoid missing the postseason for a third consecutive season. If they insist on keeping payroll even with 2014, then they have no shot. If they open the purse strings and expand payroll to near-Dodgers levels, then they could very well surpass their AL East foes.

This isn’t the only plan, but it’s one that helps address the Yankees needs without getting into the $300 million range. The Drew idea won’t be popular, but if it means not signing Hanley to a huge deal and having enough money to sign a top tier starting pitcher, isn’t that worthwhile?

Mailbag: Miller, Instructs, Willingham, Andrus

I’ve got six questions for you this week. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us any questions or comments throughout the week. Only one more mailbag before the end of the regular season, you know.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Dave asks: Shouldn’t the Yanks prioritize going after Andrew Miller as a FA? Similar to getting Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury, to get stronger and make your competition weaker, he’s a lock down lefty which they haven’t had in forever, gets righties out too, strengthens the bullpen from the left side and weakens the O’s?

I don’t put too much stock in the “take him away from your competition” angle. I don’t think that’s a reason to go out and get a player. I see it as a nice fringe benefit, that’s all. Worry about your own roster, not your opponent’s, yadda yadda yadda. Did the Yankees really take Ellsbury away from the Red Sox anyway? It’s not like Boston was going to re-sign him. He was gone no matter what.

Anyway, the 29-year-old Miller has been outstanding this year, pitching to a 1.96 ERA (1.30 FIP) with a 14.93 K/9 (42.9 K%) in 59.2 innings. Like Dave said, he’s been dominating both lefties (.193 wOBA) and righties (.217 wOBA). Miller was very good from 2012-13, pitching to a 3.04 ERA (3.12 FIP) with 12.55 K/9 (32.6 K%), but he’s taken off because he cut his walk rate from 4.69 BB/9 (12.2 BB%) the last two years to 2.41 BB/9 (6.9 BB%) this year. His homer rate (0.30 HR/9 and 5.9 HR/FB%) is flukishly low but he still kept the ball in the park from 2012-13 (0.76 HR/9 and 12.8 HR/FB%).

Miller scrapped his two-seamer this season and has stuck with his straight four-seam fastball, a pitch he can better locate. It seems like the light bulb went on — he realized he can throw his mid-90s heater right down the middle and hitters still can’t hit it. I remember reading a Matt Thornton interview a few years in which he said that’s when his career took off, when he figured out he throw fastballs over the plate and still be effective. Miller also has a devastating slider (that he uses a lot, more than 40% of the time), so he’s a two out-pitch pitcher.

I consider Miller and David Roberson to be No. 1A and 1B among the crop of free agent relievers this coming winter. They’re both elite, though Robertson cut his walk rate in half three years ago. Miller only has the one-year sample. I wouldn’t focus so much on the left-handed aspect either, he can get both lefties and righties out. He’s a one-inning, high-leverage reliever. Simple as that. Given the Boone Logan contract (three years, $16.5M), Miller is probably looking at three years and $8M or $9M annually. (He hasn’t closed and saves do pay.) I think you give him that contract hoping you get the 2014 version but expecting the 2012-13 version. That’s just me. Miller would be a fine addition to any bullpen, including New York’s.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mike asks: Should the Yankees consider Josh Willingham as a 4th OF or is he basically done?

I wouldn’t say he’s done, no. Willingham is 35 but he is also hitting .221/.353/.407 (117 wRC+) with 14 homers this year, including .258/.380/.461 (136 wRC+) against lefties. Looks like there is still some life in that bat. Willingham is not much of an outfielder at this point though, that’s the only real problem. He’s awful defensively needs regular turns at DH to remain in the lineup everyday. I have a pretty high tolerance for bad corner outfield defense but Willingham is Raul Ibanez level bad. I think he’s more of a platoon DH than a fourth outfielder. I wouldn’t say no to him, but he is a limited player.

Jon asks: Masahiro Tanaka pitched in an Instructional League game earlier this week. How does that league work? Who plays in it? Why don’t we hear more about it?

Instructional League in Florida runs from mid-September through October — there are also instructs in the Dominican Republic, though I’m not sure when they run exactly — and it’s basically a mini-camp for lower level prospects, players who are heading to the Arizona Fall League and need to stay sharp, guys who missed time to injury, etc. Top prospects at the upper levels usually don’t go to instructs, so Gary Sanchez probably isn’t there after squatting behind the plate all summer. This is mostly very young players still early in their development.

Instructs are almost like Spring Training. There are drills so players can work on specific skills and they also play intra-squad games every day. They’re very informal. Players can bat out of order to get more plate appearances, innings will simply end if a pitcher is throwing too many pitches, stuff like that. Some teams will release their Instructional League roster each fall but the Yankees don’t. They’re secretive about everything. A mini-camp is the best way to describe it. No one keeps stats or anything (maybe the team does internally, who knows), they’re just working on the basics. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a league for instruction.

Griffin asks: Do you think Elvis Andrus is a realistic trade target for the Yankees?

Realistic in the sense that the Rangers would move him? Absolutely. Realistic in the sense that he would be a good pickup? I don’t think so. Not without Texas eating a big chunk of his contract. Andrus is hitting a weak .264/.317/.334 (79 wRC+) this year after hitting an equally weak .271/.328/.331 (78 wRC+) last year. That’s a 78 wRC+ in his last 1,344 plate appearances at age 24-25 (he just turned 26). He had an 87 wRC+ from 2009-12 and a 95 wRC+ from 2011-12. He’s gone backwards at an age when he should be taking big steps forward.

Offense not included. ( Ed Zurga/Getty)
Offense not included. ( Ed Zurga/Getty)

The Rangers gave Andrus an eight-year contract worth $118M last April and it doesn’t kick in until next season. They’re going to be paying this guy roughly $15M a year every year from 2015-22. He has a 78 wRC+ in his last 1,344 plate appearances. Did I mention that? Yes, Andrus is good with the glove, but his defensive stats have been trending in the wrong direction for several years now. In fact, he’s at -4.3 UZR and -15 DRS this season. So he can’t hit, his defense isn’t as good as it once was, and he’s owed $15M a year for the better part of the next decade. I wanted Andrus as Derek Jeter‘s replacement a few years ago, before his bat went backwards. The blush is off this rose. I’m sure Texas would love to get out from under that contract at this point, but there will be too many good free agent shortstops on the market this winter for the Yankees to stoop this low.

(Aside: I am totally sick of defense first players. Give me hitters all day, everyday.)

Justin asks: If the Yankees could snap their fingers and rid themselves of one of these contracts, which would be the best one to unload, factoring in both $$$ freed up and ease of replacing said player: CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, or Brian McCann?

Out of those five guys, I would say Sabathia because there’s a good chance he will give the Yankees absolutely nothing for the remainder of his contract ($48M from 2015-16 plus a $25M vesting option for 2017 that depends on the health of his shoulder). Teixeira and Beltran will be gone in two years and Ellsbury’s still a good player. He’s the lesser of five evils here. McCann has been terrible this year but at least he still plays good defense at a premium position and mashes taters. I love Sabathia. He’s been a great Yankee. But his body has started to break down and that’s not a process you can reverse.

Mike asks: You always hear about NFL contracts being renegotiated for salary cap purposes but never in MLB. Is there a prohibition against this? Why couldn’t the Yankees offer to change the remainder of Tex’s contract to lower the yearly value of the remaining two years but adding an option year for 2017 which would pay the difference from the two remaining years plus a $1 million dollar premium? If the team declined the 2017 option, he would still get full value of contract, plus the premium and then have the option for a FA contract elsewhere. This would give the team some cap flexibility while still honoring the contract.

Sure, this happens in MLB, just not as often because there is no salary cap. Scott Rolen restructured his contract a few years ago to give the Reds more financial wiggle room, for example. (I only remember that because I wrote the MLBTR post.) I suppose the Yankees could restructure Teixeira’s contract but they would have to give him an extra year or two to make it happen. He’s not (and shouldn’t) going to do it out of the kindness of his heart. Also, I think MLB would step in if it was blatant luxury tax circumvention. The Yankees have money though. They can afford to pay Teixeira his big salary these next two years. I don’t think it’s worth keeping him around another year or two beyond that just to save a few million in 2015 and 2016, which might be non-contention years even if they use the savings to add help elsewhere.