Report: Yankees not willing to spend big on Ben Zobrist

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

It’s the offseason, which means the Yankees don’t want to trade their best prospects, don’t want to spend big on free agents, and don’t want to surrender their first round pick. They like their team and are comfortable with their roster. It’s the same stuff we hear every winter and no, it’s not always true. There’s just nothing better to say without being self-defeating.

So, naturally, the Yankees say they’re not willing to meet Ben Zobrist’s asking price this offseason, report Dan Martin and Ken Davidoff. New York tried to acquire Zobrist from the Athletics at the trade deadline but balked at Oakland’s asking price: Rob Refsnyder and Adam Warren. Martin and Davidoff say the Mets are more likely to pursue Zobrist than the Yankees.

Zobrist, 34, hit .276/.359/.450 (123 wRC+) with 13 home runs and more walks (11.6%) than strikeouts (10.5%) in 535 plate appearances for the A’s and Royals this past season. He also missed a few weeks due to minor knee surgery. Zobrist played second base, third base, and the two outfield corners in 2015. He’s played shortstop and center field as recently as 2014.

Brian Cashman said the Yankees are seeking “more balance” at second base, which means if they do make a move, it’ll be for a more well-rounded player than Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley. They have offense first second basemen. Zobrist certainly fits given his strong defense, and his versatility means he could play pretty much anywhere. Every team has a need for a guy like Zobrist.

For what it’s worth, the FanGraphs crowd projects Zobrist to get three years and $42M. MLBTR projects three years and $51M. There is no draft pick involved — Zobrist was ineligible for the qualifying offer because he was traded at midseason — so it’s a straight cash deal. The Yankees have plenty of cash. They just want people to think they don’t.

Zobrist has slowed down a bit offensively the last few years and he is entering his mid-30s, so I certainly understand any hesitation to pay him $14M+ a year for the next few years. At the same time, it’s a relatively short-term deal, and Zobrist would add a ton of much-needed flexibility to the roster.

If not Heyward, Yankees should splurge for Ben Zobrist’s versatility this offseason

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

Given how the season ended, it’s easy to forget the Yankees finished 2015 with 764 runs scored, the second most in baseball. They actually averaged more runs per game in the second half (4.80) than the first half (4.65), which feels impossible, but it’s true. That doesn’t mean the offense didn’t sputter down the stretch though. The Yankees scored only 36 runs in their last dozen games.

By the end of the season it looked like half the lineup had run into a wall. More than half, really. Carlos Beltran and whoever was playing second base on any given day were the Yankees’ only consistently productive hitters late in the season. Joe Girardi discussed this at his end-of-season press conference, saying finding a way to keep his hitters productive all summer is “something I’ll think long and hard about this winter.”

The Yankees don’t have a lot of roster flexibility this offseason, with second base the only position they aren’t really locked into a player. Brett Gardner is pretty much their only tradeable position player — obviously Didi Gregorius has more trade value, but he’s not going anywhere — but I would be surprised if he’s moved. The Yankees love him and besides, he might be their best all-around player.

Yesterday I wrote about impending free agent Jason Heyward, who I think the Yankees should pursue aggressively this winter even though there’s no clear spot for him on the roster. He’s too young (26) and way too talented to pass up when the cost is only money and a draft pick. Heyward would fit in well given the team’s relative youth movement. I don’t expect the Yankees to sign Heyward, but I’d like it to happen. Players like him don’t hit the market too often.

If the Yankees do not sign Heyward, I think the next best free agent fit for New York is Ben Zobrist, who is not young and wouldn’t fit the youth movement. He would, however, fit well with the inevitable plan to rest more players next season thanks to his versatility. Zobrist has shown he can thrive despite playing different positions. Many players struggle at the plate or defensively when they move around. Zobrist is one of the few who doesn’t.

Just this season Zobrist played second base, third base, and both corner outfield spots. Last year he played 31 games at short as well. He even has experience at first base. The Yankees would be able to use Zobrist as something of a supersub, which is one of those ideas that works so much better in theory than in practice. Zobrist is one of the few who can pull it off. We’ve seen him do it already. It’s a valuable skill.

Next season the Yankees are going to have to come up with a way to rest their regular outfielders more often, as well as Chase Headley at third. Replacing the outfielders is easy enough, though the drop-off in production is usually pretty severe. It wouldn’t be with Zobrist. Headley played the second most defensive innings on the team this year (nine fewer than Gregorius) because the Yankees didn’t have a true backup third baseman much of the season.

One way or another, the Yankees are going to have to try to create some more roster flexibility next season. That was part of the reason they acquired Dustin Ackley. He offered more versatility than Garrett Jones. The Yankees are even talking about playing John Ryan Murphy on the infield to give themselves more options. Zobrist is a switch-hitter who can actually hit (123 wRC+ this year) and play almost anywhere.

The problem is a) you have to sell Zobrist on the idea of being a supersub for the Yankees rather than an everyday player at a set position elsewhere, and b) you’ve got to pay him. Even at age 34, my guess is Zobrist ends up with three years at $15M or so. Maybe even four years from a desperate team. He’s not eligible for a qualifying offer since he was traded at midseason, so there’s no draft pick involved. It’s just money.

Is that worth it for the Yankees? To bring in Zobrist to get 500+ plate appearances while playing all different positions in an effort to keep the other players rested and hopefully productive throughout the season? I think it is. The Yankees would be able to rest their players, still be able to play Rob Refsnyder regularly, and not take such a big hit in the lineup when someone sits. Pretty much the only way they can pull that off is with Zobrist.

I don’t think the Yankees are going to spend a substantial amount of money this offseason, but if they do, Heyward should be the number one target. If he’s not, Zobrist is the next best fit. He’s a fit for every team really, given his versatility and offensive production. The Yankees need to create a little more roster flexibility and don’t have a ton of open roster spots to work with. Zobrist potentially addresses many needs.

Cashman confirms Yanks rejected Refsnyder and Warren for Zobrist at trade deadline

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

Given the way things played out this season, it’s only natural to sit here today and ask whether the Yankees should have approached the trade deadline differently. I wanted them to aggressively pursue upgrades because they were atop the division at the time, and also because 2015 might have been their last chance to win with the Mark Teixeira/Alex Rodriguez core.

Instead, the Yankees acquired Dustin Ackley and nothing else, and maybe the deadline inactivity wouldn’t have mattered at all. We’ll never know. Brian Cashman was asked about the trade deadline following last night’s game, specifically whether he regretted not making more moves. Of course he said no, but he did drop this interesting nugget. From George King:

“The only second baseman was [Ben] Zobrist and [Oakland] wanted a combo of [Adam] Warren and [Rob] Refsnyder,’’ said Cashman, who declined the offer, while Zobrist went to the Royals. “We tried to improve the bullpen and made a significant offer [to San Diego for Craig Kimbrel] and it was turned down. After the deadline, 75 percent of the players were claimed. There was nowhere to turn outside of [Triple-A] Scranton.’’

In a vacuum, trading Refsnyder and Warren for Zobrist is perfectly reasonable to me. I’m higher than most on Warren but am also probably the low guy on Refsnyder. He strikes me as a fine stopgap second baseman, but someone who has a team in contention constantly looking for an upgrade. In terms of talent and value and all that stuff, Refsnyder and Warren for Zobrist works fine.

The problem with that trade is the Yankees had no pitching depth to spare. No one was pitching deep into games in the first half and the rotation was stretched thin — Michael Pineda was placed on the DL immediately prior to the trade deadline, but Zobrist was traded two days earlier — so giving up Warren would have really hurt. They would have had to make another trade(s) for pitching help to compensate.

That would have been fine with me. I wanted the Yankees a pick up new second baseman and more pitching help at the trade deadline. Dealing Warren and Refsnyder for Zobrist, then flipping some prospects for arms would have made sense to me at the time. In the end, who knows. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference. Probably doesn’t. Warren and Refsnyder for Zobrist is a fair trade to me, but it wouldn’t have made sense without another deal for pitching.

2015 Trade Deadline Open Thread: Tuesday

Price. (Presswire)
Price. (Presswire)

We are now just four days away from the 2015 non-waiver trade deadline. The Yankees stretched their AL East lead to seven games with last night’s winFanGraphs has their postseason odds at 93.8% — but they’re in no position to coast. Ivan Nova left last night’s start with “arm fatigue,” reinforcing the team’s need for pitching help. They could also use a new second baseman and maybe a righty bench bat.

On Monday we learned … well … not much we didn’t already know. The Yankees are in on just about every pitcher, starters and relievers, and they remain interested in Ben Zobrist. Possible bullpen target Tyler Clippard was traded to the Mets as well. Oh, and Troy Tulowitzki was traded to the Blue Jays last night. How about that? We’re going to keep track of all the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back often. It really feels like a deal could happen at any moment now.

  • 2:31pm ET: Ben Zobrist is heading to the Royals for two pitching prospects. That is really disappointing. He would have been a massive upgrade at second base.
  • 2:21pm ET: The Yankees and Rockies never seriously engaged in Troy Tulowitzki trade talks. The combination of cost (both prospects and dollars) and injury risk was not particularly appealing to the Yankees. [Joel Sherman]
  • 2:10pm ET: The Athletics are “deep” in Ben Zobrist trade talks and he is expected to move soon. It’s unclear where he will end up, but the Yankees have been connected to him for weeks. Zobrist makes a ton of sense for the Bombers and pretty much every other team in MLB. [Jane Lee]
  • 12:29pm ET: The Phillies are asking teams for their “best” offers for Cole Hamels by Wednesday. That makes sense, Hamels is scheduled to pitch Thursday and they probably want to deal him before then. His stock can only go down following the no-hitter. [Jayson Stark]
  • 9:30pm ET: Craig Kimbrel‘s name has indeed popped up in trade talks with the Padres. There was nothing more than speculation connecting the Yankees to Kimbrel prior to this. The Yankees insist they will not trade their top prospects and apparently that stance will have to change to get Kimbrel. [Jon Heyman]
  • The Yankees and several other clubs are “waiting to hear” whether the Tigers will make David Price available. Detroit lost for the seventh time in eleven games since the All-Star break yesterday, though reportedly they’re going to wait a few days before deciding on a course of action. [Buster Olney]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

Second base option off the board: Zobrist goes to Royals

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

The best second base option is officially off the board. The Athletics have traded Ben Zobrist to the Royals for pitching prospects Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks, the club announced. Oakland is in full blown sell mode, having now traded Zobrist, Tyler Clippard, and Scott Kazmir. The Royals, meanwhile, are all-in with Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.

The Yankees were said to have interest in Zobrist for the last several weeks and it made perfect sense. Stephen Drew hasn’t hit all year and Zobrist, a switch-hitter with contact skills and defensive versatility, has put up a .268/.354/.447 (125 wRC+) batting line with more walks (12.2%) than strikeouts (9.6%) this year. His batting average is higher than Drew’s on-base percentage (.263).

The Royals paid a fair price for two months plus one October of Zobrist. Brooks is an up-an-down depth arm, a David Phelps type but not quite that good, while Manaea is a high-end pitching prospect with a history of injury issues (hip and abdomen, mostly). Baseball America ranked him as the 81st best prospect in the game before season.

Going from Drew to Zobrist was the biggest possible position player upgrade the Yankees could have realistically made at the trade deadline this year. (#RealTalk: Going from Drew to Zobrist is a bigger upgrade than going from Jose Reyes to Troy Tulowitzki.) The best available second base option now is, uh, Martin Prado? Egads.

Heyman: Yanks have interest in Ben Zobrist, Dustin Ackley

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

According to noted Arby’s lover Jon Heyman, the Yankees are among the teams with trade interest in Athletics do-everything-guy Ben Zobrist. “There will be many teams interested in Zobrist,” noted one A’s person while speaking to Heyman, and they’re correct. Zobrist’s ability to switch-hit and play almost anywhere makes him a hot rental commodity.

The 34-year-old Zobrist is hitting .207/.295/.359 (85 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances this year around a knee injury. As I noted last month, Zobrist has been trending downward in recent years, especially his power, but he still makes enough contact and draws enough walks to put up a decent AVG and OBP. Plus he’s a switch-hitter who plays strong defense at most positions. The fit for the Yankees is obvious as long as you’re willing to chalk up his 2015 performance to small sample size/injury noise.

Heyman also hears the Yankees maintain interest in Mariners utility man Dustin Ackley despite his dreadful season. He’s hitting a weak .197/.252/.331 (65 wRC+) in 142 plate appearances in 2015 and has been relegated to part-time duty. Ackley has experience at second base, first base, and all over the outfield. He’s still relatively young (27) and isn’t that far away from being a top draft pick (second overall in 2009) and top prospect (No. 11 and 12 on Baseball America’s top 100 lists in 2010 and 2011), so there’s some upside there if you really squint.

The Yankees have expressed interest in Ackley several times in the past, including as far back as the 2013 Winter Meetings. They reportedly tried to acquire Ackley at the trade deadline before acquiring Martin Prado last summer, but declined Seattle’s request of Bryan Mitchell in return. Mitchell’s a good pitching prospect, not a great one, but saying no was smart considering how far Ackley’s stock is fallen. He’s owed $2.6M this year and seems like a candidate to be non-tendered after the season.

Ackley. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
Ackley. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

While both Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew have performed better of late — Gregorius is 11-for-35 (.314) since the start of the West Coast trip and Drew has four homers in his last four games — the Yankees should be on the lookout for middle infield help, especially at second base since Drew is on a one-year contract. Rob Refsnyder as a 117 wRC+ in Triple-A, but, for a bat only prospect, that’s not exactly enough to force the issue. Besides, Zobrist and Ackley are versatile enough to play elsewhere even if Refsnyder comes up. (Also, Ken Rosenthal argued a six-man rotation would be easier if the Yankees had someone that versatile.)

Ackley should come pretty cheap because he’s been terrible this year and has been trending downward in recent years, though figuring out what it would take to get Zobrist is a much more difficult. The Yankees gave up Yangervis Solarte and Rafael DePaula to get Chase Headley — a similar defense-first switch-hitter with an okay bat — as a rental last summer, but my guess is Zobrist will cost quite a bit more because his peak was (and name recognition is) greater than Headley’s. Does giving up, say, Eric Jagielo make sense? It might come late July.

Barring injury, second base is the only position the Yankees can really upgrade at the trade deadline, unless they unexpectedly give up on Gregorius, which I don’t see happening. They’re locked in to players with big multi-year contracts at literally every non-middle infield position. Zobrist is a fit for the Yankees the same way he’s a fit for basically every team. Ackley’s more of a pricey reclamation project, the type a contending team usually doesn’t take on.

Scouting The Trade Market: Oakland Athletics

T-Clip. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
T-Clip. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

For the first time in the Billy Beane era, the Athletics are a truly awful team. They come into today with baseball’s worst record at 14-28 — they’ve never lost more than 88 under games under Beane and only six times have they lost more than 80 games since the took over as GM in 1998 — thanks in part to a dreadful 2-13 record in one-run games. Their bullpen has blown many leads so far this year and it’s sabotaged their season.

Depending on who you ask, Beane and the A’s may or may not be willing to trading away players soon. Joel Sherman says it could happen while Ken Rosenthal says not so fast. Given Beane’s history of being ultra-aggressive, my guess is he would start trading away players today if someone makes a good offer. The real question is whether other teams are willing to act without first giving their internal options a try.

Brian Cashman and Beane are reportedly close friends, but they don’t get together for trades very often. Just three in fact, with one being last summer’s Jeff Francis for cash swap. That doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to make trades with each other, of course. The A’s have some useful players they figure to market should they continue to fall out of the race, and a few of them are impending free agents who could help the Yankees down the stretch. Let’s look.

RHP Tyler Clippard

It’s kinda weird to think about the Yankees trading for a reliever, but Clippard is no ordinary reliever, he’s a workhorse late-innings guy any team would love to add to their staff. The 30-year-old righty has a 2.50 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 18 innings this season with some major decline in his underlying performance. Check it out:

K% BB% GB% IFFB% Soft% 1st Pitch Strike% FB velo
2012-14 27.8% 8.8% 31.4% 17.7% 20.5% 61.9% 92.2
2015 20.3% 10.8% 19.6% 12.1% 13.7% 58.1% 91.2

Clippard has always been very unique. In addition to striking batters out he has been an extreme pop-up pitcher, getting lots of soft contact in the air that results in easy outs. That 17.7% infield fly ball rate was easily the highest in MLB from 2012-14. (Kelvin Herrera was second at 14.9%). Clippard’s .228 BABIP in over 200 innings from 2012-14 is no fluke. It’s a direct result of all those pop-ups.

For whatever reason, Clippard is getting fewer pop-ups this season, and the combination of an ultra-low ground ball rate and lower than usual pop-up and soft contact rates indicate he’s giving up more scary fly balls. He’s also behind in the count more often based on his first pitch strike percentage. Between that and the mile an hour that’s gone missing from his fastball, it somewhat explains why his peripherals took a step back. Clippard’s had to come in the zone in hitter’s counts more often.

The question is whether this is a blip or a permanent thing. Clippard’s thrown a ton of high-pressure innings over the years — he leads all relievers in innings (411.1) and ranks 20th in leverage index (1.50) since 2010, so he’s pitched in a lot of stressful situations. The workload could finally be catching up to him now. Relievers are weird like that. They just start to go south without warning.

Clippard is owed $8.3M this year, so he’s not cheap, and he will become a free agent after the season. Beane could say he is willing to make Clippard the qualifying offer and thus wants something worth more than a supplemental first round pick in return, which is believable. Even if this diminished state is not a fluke, Clippard could still help the Yankees’ bullpen, which lacks a third option behind Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances.

Kazmir. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
Kazmir. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

LHP Scott Kazmir

It really feels like a matter of when Kazmir will get traded, not if. He’s another impending free agent — he’s owed $11M in 2015 and seems like a great qualifying offer candidate to me — and Kazmir should have big value now that he’s shown his success is no fluke following his improbable comeback. Remember, he was out of baseball entirely in 2012 due to arm problems.

Kazmir, 31, has a 3.08 ERA (3.75 FIP) in 49.2 innings this season while his peripheral stats are sorta all over the place. Some are trending in the right direction, some aren’t. Here’s the important stuff:

K% BB% GB% Soft% Hard% FB velo Whiff%
2013 24.1% 7.0% 40.9% 16.5% 32.8% 92.3 10.2%
2014 21.1% 6.4% 43.8% 15.6% 25.2% 90.9 9.4%
2015 23.7% 9.2% 45.5% 14.6% 23.4% 91.6 11.3%

The strikeout and swing-and-miss rates have held fairly steady yet Kazmir’s ground ball, soft contact, and hard contact rates keep getting better. Obviously it’s still early and this could (and probably will) even out as the season progresses, but teams won’t get a chance to see that before making a trade. That’s a risky thing about midseason trades — some percentage of the decision will be based on sample size performance.

Kazmir doesn’t have the wipeout slider he once did, injuries took that away, but he’s a more complete pitcher now, using two-seamers and changeups to keep hitters off balance rather than overpower them. The Scott Kazmir we watched shove all those years with the Devil Rays is long gone. He’s a much different pitcher now yet just as successful. His injury history is worrisome but the whole impending free agency thing removes long-term risk.

I get the sense Kazmir is going to be an extremely hot commodity at the trade deadline. He’s effective, doesn’t come with a big contract like Cole Hamels, and probably won’t require as big a prospect package as Johnny Cueto. Surely some of his success is Coliseum aided — that’s a great place to pitch, fly balls go there to die — but not all of it. Kazmir’s a quality pitcher who would give the Yankees a big boost the same way he would most other teams.

UTIL Ben Zobrist

Zobrist. (Ed Zurga/Getty)
Zobrist. (Ed Zurga/Getty)

Zobrist was a really good player who was never quite as good as WAR made it seem — his ability to play just about every position, while valuable, screwed up the defensive metrics. Between his offense and his admittedly above-average defense, I think he was more of a 3-4 WAR player than a 5-6 WAR player like the numbers say, but that’s just me.

Anyway, Zobrist turns 34 next week and his age is starting to show up in his offense, particularly his power. He went from 40 homers and a .202 ISO from 2011-12 to 22 homers and a .125 ISO from 2013-14. Poof. Power’s gone just like that. Luckily, Zobrist is still a high-contact hitter who draws walks — about as many as he strikes out, in fact — so he still mustered a .273 AVG and a .354 OBP from 2013-14.

So far this year Zobrist is hitting .240/.304/.400 (93 wRC+) with the Athletics, but that’s only in 56 plate appearances. He jammed his knee sliding into a base in late-April and had to have it scoped. He’s expected back in a week or two. I imagine Beane and the A’s will showcase Zobrist for a few weeks to prove he’s healthy before moving him in a trade, where he figures to be in demand given his on-base ability, switch-hitter-ness, and versatility.

Unless they unexpectedly give up on Didi Gregorius, the only position where the Yankees could make an upgrade is second base, the position Zobrist has played more than any other in his MLB career. Even if he’s not as good as WAR says, Zobrist would be a huge upgrade on Stephen Drew at the plate and maybe even an upgrade in the field, but the first part is the most important. That’s even factoring in his disappearing power. The ability to hit for average and draw walks would be welcome.

* * *

The Yankees seem to prefer rentals for in-season trades, so the A’s are a natural trade partner. It’s very tough to get an idea of what it would cost to acquire Clippard, Kazmir, or Zobrist because Beane is so unpredictable though. This past offseason he went quantity over quality in the Josh Donaldson and Jeff Samardzija trades, targeting specific players to fill specific needs. Beane did the same when he traded Dan Haren and Gio Gonzalez as well. Every once in a while he’ll go for the big prospect (Trevor Cahill for Jarrod Parker) but not often.

Out of these three players, I’d say the Yankees would benefit most from Zobrist, then Kazmir, then Clippard. Clippard was one of the worst trades of the Cashman era but I don’t think acquiring him now makes it any better. Bullpen help is toward the bottom of the shopping list give the team’s internal options. Zobrist would be a clear upgrade at second base and Kazmir would help the rotation. I think the Yankees will wait to see how Masahiro Tanaka and Ivan Nova return from injuries before pulling the trigger on a trade for a starter though.