Saturday Links: Gardner, Rule Changes, Farm System Rankings

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

The Yankees continue the Grapefruit League season this afternoon on the road against the Tigers. Michael Pineda is making his first start of the spring. Unfortunately, the game will not be televised anywhere. Not on YES, not on FOX Sports Detroit, not on MLB Network, not online, nowhere. Sucks. Instead of a game, I offer you some links for the weekend.

Yankees had chances to salary dump Gardner

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees had trade offers for Brett Gardner this past offseason that involved no money changing hands. They could have sent Gardner and the $25M left on his contract elsewhere. Of course, chances are these offers were essentially salary dumps, meaning the Yankees wouldn’t have received much of anything in return. Gardner isn’t a star or anything, but giving him away as a salary dump would be kinda silly.

My guess is the Yankees will eventually trade Gardner, the longest tenured player on the big league roster and the longest tenured player in the organization, at some point in the next 12 months. And maybe that trade will be a pure salary dump. Who knows. Maybe the Yankees will eat some money to get actual prospects in return, a la Brian McCann. Gardner’s contract isn’t onerous and he’s the team’s best on-base player. I can’t blame the Yankees for not giving him away in a salary dump.

MLB implements new rule changes

Earlier this week MLB and the MLBPA announced a series of rule changes for the 2017 season. None of the changes figure to have a dramatic impact on the game. They didn’t raise the bottom of the strike zone or anything like that. Here’s the full press release and here are the highlights:

  • Intentional walks are now automatic. The manager gives a signal from the dugout and the batter is sent right to first base.
  • Managers have 30 seconds to ask for a replay review. Also, the review crew in New York has a “conditional two-minute guideline” to made their replay decision.
  • Carter Capps’ delivery is now illegal. Pitchers may not take a “second step towards home plate with either foot.”

The automatic intentional walk rule is whatever. I don’t like it but it’s not the end of the world either. The two-minute guideline for replay reviews does sound pretty great even though it’s not a hard limit, just a guideline. Some of those reviews take a long time. Waiting out a replay is easily my least favorite part of baseball these days.

As for Capps, both he and Padres manager Andy Green told A.J. Cassavell they believe his delivery is still legal, but we’ll see. Read the press release. The rule change reads as if it was written specifically for Capps (and Jordan Walden). All of these rule changes take effect right away, so they’re in place for the 2017 season.

(Future trivia answer: The last Yankee to receive a traditional four-pitch intentional walk was Mark Teixeira. Drew Smyly intentionally walked him in the sixth inning on September 20th of last season. The last player to get one is Addison Russell. He was intentionally walked in the tenth inning of Game Seven of the World Series.)

Torres. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Yankees rank second in BA’s and BP’s farm system rankings

Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus (subs. req’d) released their annual organizational rankings within the last few days. The Yankees ranked second behind the Braves on both lists. The same was true was on Keith Law’s farm system rankings. The BP list groups teams into tiers, and the Yankees and Braves were alone at the top. Here’s a snippet of the write-up:

I generally don’t care all that much if the seventeenth best prospect in your system has a chance to be a decent middle reliever or a useful bench piece. That’s true of the vast majority of systems in any given year. Now when you have thirty of those guys? It felt like half the Trenton pitching staff might pitch in the majors at some point … We didn’t rank Dustin Fowler on our Yankees (top ten, showing their depth) … These are two of the best systems I can remember in my six years of covering prospects.

The BA write-up (subs. req’d) mentioned OF Estevan Florial as the system’s high-upside sleeper and RHP Dillon Tate as the breakout prospect. Tate was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, remember. The Yankees got him for rental Carlos Beltran and he’s not even one of the ten best prospects in the organization. Pretty cool.

Yankees had $4M to sign Carter

I thought this was interesting. According to Jared Diamond, Hal Steinbrenner okayed one last $4M signing late in the offseason, after it became clear there were bargains to be had. The Yankees didn’t even need the full $4M to sign Chris Carter. He took $3.5M guaranteed. Prior to signing Carter the Yankees had been connected mostly to lefty relievers like Travis Wood and Jerry Blevins. The 40-homer dude made more sense.

I know saving $500,000 with Carter doesn’t sound like much, and it’s really not in the grand scheme of things, but what if it was enough to finish off the Jon Niese signing? He’ll make $1.25M at the big league level. Steinbrenner gave the thumbs up for $4M and they wound up with Carter and Niese for $4.75M total, possibly less because Niese might not make the Opening Day roster, and his $1.25M salary will be pro-rated. Anyway, I’m just kinda interested in how this worked out. The Yankees were done for the offseason until the free agent market collapsed.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.

The best seasons at each position by a Yankee during the RAB era

2007 A-Rod was a hell of a thing. (NY Daily News)
2007 A-Rod was a hell of a thing. (NY Daily News)

RAB celebrated its tenth birthday Monday. Tenth! I can’t believe it. Ben, Joe, and I started this site as a hobby and it grew into something far greater than we ever expected. The site has been around for a World Series championship, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez getting to 3,000 hits, Mariano Rivera becoming the all-time saves king … we’ve seen lots of cool stuff these last ten years. Thank you to everyone who has been reading, no matter how long you’ve been with us.

For the sake of doing something a little out of the ordinary, let’s look back at the best individual seasons at each position by Yankees players during the RAB era. Who had the best season by a catcher? By a right fielder? That sorta stuff. We launched on February 20th, 2007, so this covers the 2007-16 seasons. Come with me, won’t you?

Catcher: 2007 Jorge Posada

Very easy call behind the plate. Posada had the best offensive season of his career in 2007, hitting .338/.426/.543 (157 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 589 plate appearances. He caught 138 games that year — it was Jorge’s eighth straight season with 120+ starts behind the plate — and went to his fifth and final All-Star Game. Posada also finished sixth in the MVP voting. By bWAR (+5.4) and fWAR (+5.6), it was the third best season of his career behind 2003 (+5.9 and +6.0) and 2000 (+5.5 and +6.1). Honorable mention goes out to 2015 Brian McCann and 2016 Gary Sanchez. (Sanchez’s +3.0 bWAR last year is second best by a Yankee catcher during the RAB era.)

First Base: 2009 Mark Teixeira

Another easy call. Teixeira’s first season in pinstripes featured a .292/.383/.565 (142 wRC+) batting line and AL leading home run (39), RBI (122), and total bases (344) totals. He went to his second All-Star Game and won his third Gold Glove at first base as well. Teixeira was the MVP runner-up to Joe Mauer, though Teixeira and the Yankees swept Mauer and the Twins in the ALDS en route to winning the World Series. Got the last laugh that year. Both bWAR (+5.0) and fWAR (+5.1) say Teixeira’s 2009 season was far and away the best by a Yankees first baseman since RAB became a thing. Honorable mention goes to a bunch of other Teixeira seasons.

Second Base: 2012 Robinson Cano

The only question at second base was which Cano season to pick. His run from 2009-13 was truly the best five-year stretch by a second baseman in franchise history. Cano hit .313/.379/.550 (149 wRC+) with 33 homers in 2012 while playing 161 of 162 regular season games. He set new career highs in homers, slugging percentage, total bases (345), bWAR (+8.7), and fWAR (+7.6) while tying his previous career high in doubles (48). Robbie was a monster. He went to his third straight All-Star Game and won his third straight Gold Glove, and also finished fourth in the MVP voting. The club’s best season by a non-Cano second baseman during the RAB era belongs to Starlin Castro. Quite the drop-off there, eh?

Shortstop: 2009 Derek Jeter

The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)
The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)

As great as Teixeira was in 2009, he wasn’t even the best player on his own infield that year. The Yankees flip-flopped Jeter and Johnny Damon in the batting order that season and the Cap’n responded by hitting .334/.406/.465 (130 wRC+) with 18 home runs and 30 steals in 35 attempts as the leadoff man. It was also the first (and only) time in Jeter’s career the fielding stats rated him as above-average. I remember thinking Derek looked noticeably more mobile in the field. That was the year after Brian Cashman reportedly told Jeter the team would like him to work on his defense after finding out Joe Torre never relayed the message years ago. The 2009 season was the second best of Jeter’s career by fWAR (+6.6) and third best by bWAR (+6.5) behind his monster 1998-99 seasons. The Cap’n was an All-Star that year and he finished third in the MVP voting behind Mauer and Teixeira.

Third Base: 2007 Alex Rodriguez

The single greatest season by a Yankee not just during the RAB era, but since Mickey Mantle was in his prime. I went to about 25 games that season and I swear I must’ve seen A-Rod hit 25 home runs. He went deep every night it seemed. Rodriguez hit .314/.422/.645 (175 wRC+) that summer and led baseball in runs (143), home runs (54), RBI (156), SLG (.645), OPS+ (176), bWAR (+9.4), and fWAR (+9.6). All that earned him a spot in the All-Star Game (duh) and his third MVP award (second with the Yankees). A-Rod received 26 of the 28 first place MVP votes that year. The two Detroit voters voted for Magglio Ordonez. For reals. What an incredible season this was. I’ve never seen a player locked in like that for 162 games. Alex was on a completely different level than everyone else in 2007.

Left Field: 2010 Brett Gardner

With all due respect to Damon, who was outstanding for the 2009 World Series team, 2010 Gardner was better than 2009 Damon. Gardner hit .277/.383/.379 (112 wRC+) with five home runs and 47 steals that season to go along with his excellent defense. Damon, meanwhile, hit a healthy .282/.365/.489 (122 wRC+) with a career high tying 24 home runs and 12 steals in 2009. His defense was so very shaky though. Remember how he used to take those choppy steps that made it seem like he had no idea where the ball was? Both bWAR (+7.3 to +4.2) and fWAR (+6.1 to +3.6) say 2010 Gardner was better than 2009 Damon, but forget about WAR. Gardner got on base much more often and was the better baserunner. I think that combined with the glove more than makes up for Damon’s edge in power. Honorable mention goes to Matsui’s .285/.367/.488 (124 wRC+) effort with 25 home runs in 2007.

Center Field: 2011 Curtis Granderson

Remember how much Granderson struggled the first four and a half months of the 2010 season? He was hitting .240/.307/.417 (91 wRC+) with ten homers in 335 plate appearances prior to his career-altering pow wow with hitting coach Kevin Long that August. Granderson made some mechanical changes and hit .259/.354/.560 (144 wRC+) with 14 homers in 193 plate appearances the rest of the way. He went from a passable outfielder to one of the game’s top power hitters seemingly overnight. That success carried over into 2011, during which Granderson hit .262/.364/.552 (146 wRC+) with 41 home runs. He led the league in runs (136) and RBI (119), went to the All-Star Game, and finished fourth in the MVP voting. My man.

Right Field: 2010 Nick Swisher

We’re picking between Swisher seasons here, and I’m going with 2010 over 2012. Swisher managed a .288/.359/.511 (134 wRC+) line with 29 home runs in 2010, making it the best offensive season of his career. Add in right field defense that was better than Swisher got credit for, and you’ve got a +3.7 bWAR and +4.3 fWAR player. Right field lacks that big eye-popping season like the other positions during the RAB era. Swisher was reliably above-average but not a star.

Designated Hitter: 2009 Hideki Matsui

Happier times. (Al Bello/Getty)
Happier times. (Al Bello/Getty)

I came into this exercise with a pretty good idea who I’d have at each position, and I assumed 2009 Matsui would be the easy call at DH. Then when I got down to it and looked at the stats, I realized 2015 A-Rod was pretty much right there with him. Check it out:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR XBH RBI bWAR fWAR
2009 Matsui 528 .274/.367/.509 127 28 50 90 +2.7 +2.4
2015 A-Rod 620 .250/.356/.486 130 33 56 86 +3.1 +2.7

That’s really close! Matsui hit for a higher average and got on-base more, though A-Rod had more power. A lefty hitting 28 homers in Yankee Stadium isn’t as impressive as a righty hitting 33, even when considering the 92 extra plate appearances. Since they’re so close, I’m fine with using the postseason as a tiebreaker. Matsui was excellent in October while A-Rod went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Wild Card Game loss to the Astros. Tie goes to the World Series MVP.

Now that we have our nine position players, I’m going to build a lineup, because why not? Lineups are fun. Here’s how I’d set the batting order:

  1. 2009 Derek Jeter
  2. 2012 Robinson Cano
  3. 2007 Alex Rodriguez
  4. 2009 Mark Teixeira
  5. 2007 Jorge Posada
  6. 2011 Curtis Granderson
  7. 2009 Hideki Matsui
  8. 2010 Nick Swisher
  9. 2010 Brett Gardner

Look good? It does to me. Dave Pinto’s lineup analysis tool tells me that lineup would average 6.87 runs per game, or 1,113 runs per 162 games. The modern record for runs scored in a season is 1,067 by the 1931 Yankees. (Several teams from the 1800s scored more.) The 1999 Indians were the last team to score 1,000 runs. They scored 1,009.

Starting Pitchers

Moooooose. (Nick Laham/Getty)
Moooooose. (Nick Laham/Getty)
IP ERA ERA+ FIP bWAR fWAR
2008 Mike Mussina 200.1 3.37 131 3.32 +5.2 +4.6
2009 CC Sabathia 230 3.37 137 3.39 +6.2 +5.9
2011 CC Sabathia 237.1 3.00 143 2.88 +7.5 +6.4
2012 Hiroki Kuroda 219.2 3.32 127 3.86 +5.5 +3.8
2016 Masahiro Tanaka 199.2 3.07 142 3.51 +5.4 +4.6

Chien-Ming Wang‘s 2007 season as well as a few more Sabathia seasons (2010 and 2012, specifically) were among the final cuts. Late career Andy Pettitte was steady and reliable, but he didn’t have any truly great seasons from 2007-13.

Sabathia is the gold standard for Yankees starting pitchers during the RAB era. From 2009-12, he was the club’s best pitcher since guys like Pettitte, Mussina, David Cone, and Roger Clemens around the turn of the century. Mussina had that marvelous farewell season and Tanaka was awesome last year. Kuroda? He was the man. One-year contracts don’t get any better than what he did for the Yankees.

The Yankees haven’t had an all-time great pitcher during the RAB era, a Clayton Kershaw or a Felix Hernandez, someone like that, but they had four years of a bonafide ace in Sabathia plus several other very good seasons. Everyone in the table except Kuroda received Cy Young votes those years. Sabathia finished fourth in the voting in both 2009 and 2011.

Relief Pitchers

IP ERA ERA+ FIP bWAR fWAR
2008 Mariano Rivera 70.2 1.40 316 2.03 +4.3 +3.2
2009 Mariano Rivera 66.1 1.76 262 2.89 +3.5 +2.0
2011 David Robertson 66.2 1.08 399 1.84 +4.0 +2.6
2014 Dellin Betances 90 1.40 274 1.64 +3.7 +3.2
2015 Dellin Betances 84 1.50 271 2.48 +3.7 +2.4
2015 Andrew Miller 61.2 2.04 200 2.16 +2.2 +2.0
2016 Dellin Betances 73 3.08 141 1.78 +1.1 +2.9

So many great relief seasons to choose from. I had to leave out several Rivera seasons (2007, 2010, 2011, 2013), several Robertson seasons (2012-14), a Miller season (2016), a Rafael Soriano season (2012), and even a Phil Hughes season (2009). Remember how great Hughes was in relief in 2009? Hughes and Rivera were automatic that year. The Yankees have been blessed with some truly excellent relievers these past ten years. The great Mariano Rivera retired and somehow they have replaced him seamlessly. We’ve seen some amazing performances since launching RAB.

What needs to go right for the Yankees to contend in 2017?

An uphill climb. (Presswire)
An uphill climb. (Presswire)

In just three days the Yankees will play their first game of the Grapefruit League season. These next five weeks and four days will be used to determine the final few roster spots and shape the Opening Day roster, a roster that will inevitably change many times during the regular season. The Opening Day roster is never the roster that finishes the season.

The Yankees readily admit they’re in the middle of a “transition” right now, and while they’re not completely throwing in the towel and tanking, they are emphasizing the future over the present. It’s refreshing. They’ve needed to do this for a while. A year ago the Yankees won 84 games and were still in the wildcard race in late-September. It seems they’re in for more of the same this year. In fact, let’s look over the 2017 projections quickly:

  • FanGraphs: 80 wins (last in AL East, three games back of second wildcard spot)
  • PECOTA: 82 wins (third in AL East, two games back of second wildcard spot)
  • SportsLine: 80.4 wins (fourth in AL East, four games back of second wildcard spot)

The Yankees have outperformed the projections and their run differential for several years running now. Run differential says they should have won 323 games from 2013-16. They actually won 340. Do it once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year — we’re talking about 17 extra wins across four years here, that’s a lot — and it’s a trend. For whatever reason the Yankees are always a few games better than expected. It’s happened too long to ignore.

Anyway, the projection systems see the Yankees as a .500 team or thereabouts in 2017, and I can’t say I strongly disagree with that. Based on the way things have gone the last few years, that probably means they’ll end up with something like 84 wins instead. Enough to remain interesting but almost certainly not enough to seriously contend for a postseason berth. They’ll need some things to break right to play in October this year.

Some of those things are obvious. Masahiro Tanaka needs to stay healthy or the Yankees are completely screwed. There’s virtually no path to the postseason that includes Tanaka being anything less than ace-like. Gary Sanchez needs to be an offensive force. He won’t do what he did last year again, though the Yankees are counting on him to provide big time power. When the team has a lead after seven innings, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman have to make it stand up.

The Yankees are going to need some other things to go their way to contend this year, things that are not so obvious. Without fail, each year every contending team get some kinda surprise out-of-nowhere performance that helps push them over the hump. Do you think the Red Sox expected Sandy Leon to hit like that last year? Of course not. The Dodgers weren’t counting on Grant Dayton being an ace setup man. Those surprise performances are what make baseball fun.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things I think need to happen for the Yankees to have a real chance at contending this year. I’m talking 89 wins or more, something that puts them right in the thick of the wildcard race. It’s doable. Unlikely? Sure. But doable. Let’s get to it.

Either Bird or Judge becomes bonafide a middle of the order hitter

#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD. (Presswire)

First base and right field are offense positions. Strong defense is always appreciated, though generally speaking, teams are looking for bashers at those spots. Bird and Judge both have a lot of potential, though they’re kids with fewer than 300 big league plate appearances combined. It’s tough to know what to expect. Especially since one is coming back from major shoulder surgery and the other is 6-foot-7 and making all sorts of mechanical adjustments.

As it stands, the Yankees will lean on Sanchez and Matt Holliday to anchor the middle of the order. I’ll be surprised if they’re not hitting third and fourth (in either order) on Opening Day. The Chris Carter addition provides some protection in case Bird gets off to a slow start or needs time in the minors to get his swing back. Carter is a flawed hitter, no doubt, but at least you know he’ll sock dingers on the regular. Ideally he’d something like sixth or seventh though, not fifth.

Point is, the Yankees have a pretty glaring need for another middle of the order hitter, someone to give the team a formidable 3-4-5 with Sanchez and Holliday. Bird and Judge have the most offensive potential among the young players, and while it would be cool if both established themselves as big time hitters this summer, the Yankees are going to need at least one of those guys to do it to contend. They need to add length to the lineup. No doubt about it.

Gardner and Ellsbury bounce back at the plate

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury had similar offensive seasons a year ago. Gardner got on base more often and hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) overall. That was down from the .259/.343/.399 (106 wRC+) line he put up in 2015. Ellsbury showed a little more pop than Gardner and finished with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line last year. That was actually up from .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 2015.

The Yankees have hinted at breaking those two up atop the lineup, though the fact of the matter is the offense is at its best when Gardner and Ellsbury are playing like they did in 2014 and early in 2015, before Ellsbury hurt his knee. It seemed like they were on base a combined six times each night. The Yankees don’t want to break those two up. They want them to play well enough to remain atop the lineup. That’s the best case scenario.

Like I said earlier, the Yankees need a deeper lineup, and that starts right at the top with Gardner and Ellsbury. Whether they’re capable of giving more at their ages — Gardner turns 34 in August, Ellsbury will do the same in September — is another matter entirely. I can’t say I’m optimistic about Ellsbury bouncing back at the plate, personally. For the Yankees to contend in 2017 though, they’ll need their two veteran speedsters to raise some hell as table-setters.

Severino pulls a Danny Salazar

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

In 2013 the Indians called Salazar, a top pitching prospect, up to the big leagues in the second half, and he gave them ten starts with a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP). Cleveland was counting on him to be a key member of their rotation in 2014, but instead Salazar didn’t pitch all that well (4.25 ERA and 3.52 FIP) and spent a chunk of the season in the minors. Then, in 2015, Salazar reestablished himself as a top young arm by throwing 185 innings with a 3.45 ERA (3.62 FIP).

The Yankees are hoping Severino follows a similar path. He came up and helped the team with eleven strong starts in 2015 before struggling in 2016 and spending part of the season in the minors. With any luck, Severino’s 2017 will look like Salazar’s 2015. There are plenty of caveats here — Salazar’s changeup is better than either of Severino’s secondary pitches, and Salazar really wasn’t that bad in 2014 — though the point stands. A good second half cameo in year one, struggles in year two, then a breakout in year three. This is year three for Severino.

Pineda has a big contract year

If there was ever a time for Michael Pineda to become the pitcher the Yankees expected when they acquired him all those years ago, this would be it. Big Mike will be a free agent after the season and putting together a solid campaign from start to finish would set him up for a nice payday. The Yankees need him to pitch well to solidify the rotation too. Pineda pitching well is a win-win. He sets himself up well for free agency and the Yankees get some wins out of it. Another year of below-average production helps no one.

At least one of the young relievers breaks through

In Betances and Chapman, the Yankees have as good a bullpen one-two punch as any team in baseball. Things get a little dicey after that. Tyler Clippard was solid after the trade last year, though he is clearly no longer the pitcher he was a few years ago, and an extreme fly ball pitcher whose fastball is dipping closer and closer to 90 mph might not be such a great fit for Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. Clippard is the No. 3 reliever right now.

Adam Warren is the fourth option and he seems to be at his best when he’s a Swiss Army Knife reliever, not someone who is tied down to a specific inning. Then there’s Tommy Layne and two open spots, which figure to log a lot of mileage this year. We’ll see plenty of pitchers come in and out over the summer months. We always do. Sometimes by design but often out of necessity. The Yankees have been as aggressive as any team calling up relievers.

One of the young relievers like, say, Ben Heller or Jonathan Holder becoming a reliable sixth or seventh inning guy would go a long way to improving the bullpen. The rotation doesn’t figure to log many innings, making the middle of the game treacherous at times. Another year of middle innings instability won’t get the Yankees to the postseason. Finding that extra bullpen piece could swing a lot of games in those tricky middle innings.

Bird’s shoulder, Severino’s changeup among top storylines for Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the first day of the long journey that is the 2017 baseball season. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa to open Spring Training today, and with any luck (okay, a lot of luck), the Yankees won’t be done playing until November. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There’s a whole baseball season to enjoy first.

This Spring Training, perhaps moreso than any Spring Training in recent memory, will offer some really intriguing storylines. And for once, it’s not because of the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy, or because we’re wondering whether some veteran signed to a huge contract will be healthy and productive. The Yankees will have many of their great prospects in camp and several big league jobs up for grabs.

So, as something of a Spring Training preview, let’s look at what figure to be the most important storylines of Spring Training this year. These are the storylines I think are important, anyway. You don’t need to be told Gary Sanchez‘s sophomore season and Aroldis Chapman‘s return are big deals, right? Right. Here are my most important storylines this spring, in no particular order.

Is Bird’s shoulder healthy?

By all accounts the answer is yes, Bird’s shoulder is healthy. Bryan Hoch posted video of Bird cutting loose and taking batting practice last week. That’s probably not something he would be doing if there was still concern about his shoulder. So I guess the real question is whether Bird has shaken off the rust following his lost season, and gotten back to where he was prior to the surgery one year ago.

The Yankees suddenly have a bonafide first base alternative in Chris Carter, who signed a one-year deal last week. I mean, they always had Tyler Austin and Ji-Man Choi to compete with Bird for the first base job, but Carter represents a more legitimate option. Austin and Choi have proven basically nothing at the MLB level. Carter led the National League in homers last year. For what it’s worth, Bird said all the right thing after the Carter signing.

“I think we’re happy to have (Carter), honestly. It’s another big bat and a good bat. I think he can bring a lot to the table. I’m excited to meet him,” said Bird to Dan Martin last week. “I missed a whole year. I have to prove to them that I can play again and play at a high level and be a quality part of the team.”

How is Judge doing with his new leg kick?

Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

We’ve seen several versions of Aaron Judge since 2015. Two years ago he had a relatively small leg kick. Then last year he had a big leg kick. Now he has no leg kick. Judge and the Yankees are still working to find the right lower half mechanics, the mechanics that will allow him to make more contact. Power isn’t a question. Judge has plenty of that. Enough that he can sacrifice some power for contact.

As far as we know, Judge has been working on this new no leg kick setup all offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s 100% comfortable yet and ready to take it into games yet, however. This was always going to be an important Spring Training for Judge anyway. He is going to have to perform well to win the right field job. Now he has to do it while still adjusting to his new lower half mechanics. Hopefully it clicks right away and is a smooth transition.

Is Severino actually throwing his changeup?

The 2016 version of Luis Severino is a harsh reminder that sometimes things go wrong even with the most talented young players. Very, very wrong. Severino was an unmitigated disaster as a starter last year. He really was. We’re talking an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.1 innings. Yikes. He was electric in 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, which only barely salvaged his season. (Not really.)

Severino basically stopped using his changeup late last year. He averaged 12.2 changeups per start during his debut in 2015, then averaged 13.1 changeups per start in his first eight starts last season, before he hurt his triceps and was later sent down. Then, in his final four starts — this doesn’t count his time in the bullpen — Severino threw 12 changeups total. That won’t work. Not as a starter.

This spring Severino will have to earn a rotation spot — I do think he’s favored to get one, though it’s far from guaranteed — and part of that is showing a willingness to use that changeup. It should be, anyway. If Severino cuts through camp with nothing but fastballs and sliders, how is that a good thing? He needs his changeup to be a successful starter and we should see that pitch plenty in camp.

How long will Kaprielian stick around?

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

Last spring the talk was James Kaprielian could make his big league debut later in the 2016 season. A flexor strain put an end to that, but it wasn’t an unrealistic thought in Spring Training. Kaprielian was a non-roster invitee last year and he threw only 3.2 Grapefruit League innings (across two appearances) before being sent to minor league camp. It wasn’t the longest look. Then again, Kaprielian had to prepare for his minor league season.

At this time last year the Yankees were six deep in starters, remember. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Severino were going to be in the rotation. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova had to compete for the fifth starter’s spot. This year the Yankees have two open spots behind Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia. Severino is going to compete for one of those spots with Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Possibly Adam Warren too.

The number of Grapefruit League innings the Yankees give Kaprielian this spring could be telling. If it’s another quick two-game, four-inning showing before being reassigned to minor league camp, then it’s business as usual. But, if Kaprielian hangs around a little longer, then it’ll be a pretty good indication the Yankees want to move him through the system quickly. He’ll get to spend more time with the big leagues coaches in the spring that way.

Is Girardi really going to change the top of the lineup?

Last month Brian Cashman acknowledged the Yankees have discussed breaking up Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup since last season. Ultimately, it will be Joe Girardi‘s call, he said. “I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays,” said the GM.

Spring Training lineups are not designed to win the game. The veteran players bat high in the order so they can get their three at-bats and head home. It’s not until later in the spring, when the regulars play complete games and back-to-back days, that we start to get an idea of how the regular season lineup will shake out. The Yankees have so many young players and new faces that the lineup is kinda up in the air. Been a while since that was the case.

Anyway, my guess is Girardi will start the season with Gardner and Ellsbury batting first and second in whatever order. That’s the easiest thing to do. It won’t ruffle any feathers and it’ll delay any action, which might not even be necessary. But, if Girardi is truly willing to break up his two veteran leadoff guys, we should see it happen at some point in camp, particularly later in March when the lineup begins to look like the actual regular season lineup.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Matt Holliday, DH
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Greg Bird, 1B
  6. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  7. Starlin Castro, 2B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Headley, 3B

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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