Fitting Chris Carter into the Lineup

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)
(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)

If you’ve never experienced pure boredom and, for whatever reason, want to, I suggest you proctor a New York State Regents exam. It’s perfect if you love pacing around a room, unable to speak, sit, read, or write while students take a graduation-mandatory exam. Just as perfect is hall proctoring, in which you wait outside a room or pair of rooms for students to use the bathroom, where you must escort them–one by one–and wait outside. The highlight of this was flipping quarters that I happened to have in my pocket, marking down heads or tails on my finger; for the record, tails won in a relative landslide. I mention this not so that you pity me– please, though, feel free to do so–but because this is a near-perfect analogy for where we are in the baseball calendar. Like me waiting to be relieved by the next proctor or the kids who finished early waiting for the release time, we’re all at our ‘desks’ waiting for Spring Training to begin.

To their credit, the Yankees did add some fire to the hot stove when they signed Chris Carter to a one year contract last week. When I first heard that they were checking in on him, I wasn’t too jazzed about the idea. But once the signing was announced–especially for so cheap–I came around on it more and more; that could have had something to do with spending a bit of time watching highlight videos of Carter’s NL-leading 41 homers. Regardless of how I–or you–feel about the deal, it’s done and Carter will be part of the team and playing time for him needs to be found. He brings with him a ton of whiffs, but a ton of walks and the aforementioned homers, too, and the Yankees have been lacking those things of late. Though not necessarily an ideal candidate for this team, Carter can help and add value; the only issue is, as Mike mused, where the heck is he gonna play?

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Against right handed pitchers, it’s pretty hard to find a spot for Carter, aside from a late-inning pinch hitter when a tough lefty reliever comes in. As a right handed batter, he obviously doesn’t give a platoon advantage over Greg Bird at first, and he’s not as complete a hitter as Matt Holliday. To be fair to Carter, though, he does have a career wOBA of .332 (109 wRC+) against righties, so he’s not helpless against them–far from it–which is comforting should Holliday go down or Bird’s shoulder not be fully recovered.

Against lefties, though, there will be ample opportunity for Carter to play. The simple answer is that he and Bird split the first base duties as a platoon. This serves a dual purpose as it gives Bird the lion’s share of the playing time and gives the Yankees another powerful right handed bat to deploy against lefties. However, as Bird is much longer for this team than Carter, it might make more sense to expose Bird to lefties as well. Where does that leave Carter? It depends on some other platoon variables.

If the Yanks really want to hammer lefties and eschew defense a bit in the process, they can. They can accomplish this dual ‘goal’ by being aggressive with their platooning in the outfield. Aaron Hicks can play center in place of Jacoby Ellsbury. Matt Holliday can “play” left field in place of Brett Gardner. The latter move would free up a spot for Carter to DH, giving the Yankees an all-right handed lineup against lefties, save for Didi Gregorius at short.

Chances are, this is all academic and this “problem” resolves itself through lack of performance or an injury. And, either way, the Yankees didn’t sign a 30+ homer guy–regardless of lack of cost–to have him ride the pine. He’ll get his playing time. And, as Mike noted, Carter has team control after this and 2017 could be a showcase for 2018. Hopefully, he makes the most of it.

Thoughts following the Chris Carter signing

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Turns out the Yankees had one more move left in them this offseason. Yesterday afternoon the team reportedly agreed to terms with reigning National League home run champ Chris Carter. It’s a one-year deal with a $3.5M base salary plus another $500,000 in incentives based on plate appearances. Let’s talk this one out, shall we?

1. I am mostly indifferent to the signing, and like many of you, the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard about it was “wooo dingers!” Gosh do I love home runs. They’re the best. The second thing that crossed my mind is “where is Carter going to play?” My fearlessly bold prediction: this will work itself out. It always does. We fret over playing time in February and before you know it we’ll be wondering where the Yankees would be without Carter. That’s usually how this stuff works. The Yankees have a 37-year-old designated hitter (Matt Holliday) and a young unproven first baseman coming back from major shoulder surgery (Greg Bird). The at-bats will be there and they’re paying him middle reliever money*. The Yankees wouldn’t have signed Carter without some sort of plan in place, and you know what else? Carter probably wouldn’t have signed with the Yankees without playing time assurances. We’ll see how it shakes out. As always, the odds of playing time being a non-issue are better than we’d probably like to admit.

* The Rangers gave Mike Napoli a one-year contract worth $8.5M yesterday. How, exactly, is he $5M better than Carter?

2. Seriously though, where is he going to play? I don’t think the Carter signing is the first step in some grand “trade Brett Gardner and clear the roster spot that way” scheme. Prior to the signing, Bird as well as Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder were fighting for two big league roster spots (first base and bench). One of those roster spots is now going to Carter. The kids all have minor league options, so sending them down to Triple-A for the time being isn’t a problem, but the Yankees are in the middle of a rebuild transition and they just signed a 30-year-old one-dimensional slugger to take the roster spot of a young player. That … kinda goes against the plan, no? Again, I’m sure this will work itself out. Holliday isn’t he most durable player at this point of his career and Bird is coming back from shoulder surgery. Heck, maybe the Yankees signed Carter because Bird’s shoulder isn’t 100% and they haven’t told us yet. But, if everyone makes it through camp in one piece, now two of Bird, Austin, and Refsnyder are going to open the season in Triple-A. Not only one. (Sixty-five days in the minors delays Bird’s free agency a year, remember.)

3. Who is going to lose their 40-man roster spot for Carter? I’ve been assuming Richard Bleier is next up on the 40-man chopping block all winter, but it hasn’t happened yet, and it seems the Yankees like him more than I realized. If not Bleier, my guess is Johnny Barbato. Barbato made the Opening Day roster last season but pitched so poorly he didn’t just wind up back in Triple-A, he didn’t even get a September call-up. That’s not a good sign. The Yankees aren’t going to cut any of the kids they protected from the Rule 5 Draft earlier this offseason (Dietrich Enns, Yefrey Ramirez, Ronald Herrera, etc.) and I’d be surprised if Austin Romine or Ronald Torreyes got the axe even though the club has internal replacement candidates at their positions. Maybe Mason Williams? The Yankees will have plenty of outfielders in Triple-A, so perhaps Williams is expendable. Right now, I’m going with Barbato.

4. Carter is a right-handed hitter who socked 41 dingers a year ago and has averaged 38 home runs per 162 games over the last three seasons. He hit .224/.338/.537 (126 wRC+) against lefties last season and .222/.335/.486 (123 wRC+) against lefties over the last three seasons. The following left-handed starters pitch for rival AL East teams: J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Wade Miley, Drew Pomeranz, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale, and Blake Snell. Yeah. The extra power right-handed bat is going to come in handy. Especially since Carter is a guy who can go the other way and take advantage of the short porch. Here is his spray chart over the last three years (via Baseball Savant):

chris-carter-spray-chartNo one will mistake Carter for a great pure hitter who works the entire field and things like that. He’s going to grip it and rip it, and sometimes the ball flies over the fence, even to the opposite field. The short porch will get some extra love in 2017.

5. The big drawback with Carter is, obviously, his strikeouts. He led the NL with 41 home runs last season and also with 206 strikeouts. His 32.0% strikeout rate last year was second highest among qualified hitters, behind only Chris Davis (32.9%). Only Mike Zunino (33.7%) and Davis (32.3%) have a higher strikeout rate than Carter (32.2%) over the last three years. That’s a problem. Strikeouts are bad. You live with them in exchange for the power, but they’re still bad. One big power/lots of strikeouts guy in the lineup is tolerable. More than one gets a little iffy, and there’s a pretty good chance Carter and Aaron Judge will both be in the lineup a bunch of times next season. That’s going to lead to a lot of empty at-bats and rallies dying without the ball being put in play. Judge is a top prospect and hopefully the right fielder of the future. He’s a priority player. As long as the Yankees deem him big league ready, he should be in the lineup. He shouldn’t sit just because Carter is owed a couple million bucks and Joe Girardi doesn’t want two strikeout guys in the lineup. Judge has to play and I’m sure Carter is going to play a bunch too. The two might combine for 400 strikeouts this season, like for real, and that won’t be pleasant to sit through at times.

6. This is worth pointing out: Carter will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018. He somehow still has fewer than five full years of service time. The Brewers non-tendered him earlier this offseason because they didn’t want to pay a projected $8M salary through arbitration. Obviously no one else felt Carter was worth that salary either, because he signed for $3M with some incentives. Chances are the same thing will happen next offseason. The Yankees will non-tender Carter because his projected salary will outweigh his actual production. But, if Carter has a nice year, the club could bring him back in 2018 as their post-Holliday designated hitter. It’ll be an option available to them. Hopefully Carter has a good season and forces the Yankees to think hard about bringing him back for another year. That would be cool.

7. One thing I do not expect to happen is a midseason trade. One of those “Carter plays well and the Yankees flip him for prospects at the deadline” situations. Nope. Can’t see it. Carter hit .230/.317/.514 (113 wRC+) with 22 homers before the All-Star break last summer and the Brewers made him available at the deadline, but no team bit. The same way no team bit when Milwaukee put him on the trade market prior to the non-tender deadline. It’s more likely Carter will be designated for assignment and released at midseason than traded for an actual prospect. An injury could always create a need somewhere else around the league, but, over these last seven months or so, the market has told us Carter doesn’t have much value at all. Heck, you can go even further back than that, when the Astros non-tendered him following the 2015 season. They tried to trade him too. This is a straight one-year deal with upside in the form of dingers. That’s about it.

Update: Yankees agree to one-year deal with Chris Carter

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Update (7:04pm ET by Mike): The deal is worth $3.5M guaranteed, not $3M, says Ken Rosenthal. The plate appearance incentives can push the total value to $4M.

Update (3:08pm ET by Mike): According to Bob Nightengale, the Yankees have agreed to a one-year deal with Carter, pending physical. It’ll pay him a $3M base salary plus incentives. Carter gets a $500,000 signing bonus plus an extra $100,000 each for 250, 300, 350, 400, and 450 plate appearances.

Original Post (12:30pm ET): As per Jerry Crasnick of ESPN and Baseball America, the Yankees have some semblance of interest in former Brewer and current free agent 1B/DH Chris Carter. The front office has been in contact with Carter’s agent, Dave Stewart (yes, that Dave Stewart), but that accounts for all that we know at this point in time.

Carter was non-tendered by the Brewers early in the off-season, on the heels of a solid 2016 in which the 30-year-old batted .222/.321/.499 (112 wRC+) and led the National League in both home runs (41) … and strikeouts (206). The Brewers decision was likely influenced by his poor defensive contributions and expected $8 MM-plus price tag, as Carter’s iron glove at first limited him to just 0.9 fWAR. They are in the midst of a tear-down and rebuild, so it makes sense that they would look to invest their payroll and playing time elsewhere.

The question for the Yankees is rather simple – where would Carter play?

Carter has been a 1B/DH almost exclusively since 2014, though he has played 79 games in the outfield in his career. Unsurprisingly, the 6’5″, 245-plus pound slugger was an unmitigated disaster out there, with a career -29.7 UZR/150 (or an ugly .951 fielding percentage, if you want to keep it simple). In short, unless the Yankees are feeling particularly adventurous, Carter’s role would be a back-up/platoon partner for Greg Bird at first.

The likelihood of Carter settling for a back-up or platoon role may not be all that great, as Ken Rosenthal recently reported that Carter is “looking for more at-bats than he probably would get from the Dodgers, who likely would play him at first base against left-handed pitching and give him an occasional start in left field.” Rosenthal also spoke with the aforementioned Stewart, who said that “[i]t’s going to be important for Chris to get significant playing time.”

That expectation also suggests that Carter is looking for a guaranteed Major League deal. He made $4.175 MM in 2015, and was subsequently non-tendered by the Astros. The Brewers picked him up for just $2.5 MM last year, and now here we are. Carter was non-tendered after the free agent predictions list came out in early to mid-November, so there isn’t much guesswork out there. Do we compare him to Matt Holliday, who the Yankees signed for $13 MM? What about Mitch Moreland, who was picked up by the Red Sox for $5.5 MM? Or will he have to settle for something less, considering that it’s a week before Spring Training and other RHH 1B/DH types like Mike Napoli (though, he has been linked to the Rangers) and Billy Butler are still available?

As of now, there are two distinct possibilities that stand out to me. The first is that the Yankees are looking for an insurance policy for Bird and/or Tyler Austin, and are merely doing their due diligence. And the other is that this is a tried-and-true example of a player’s agent using the Yankees name to try to put his player front and center (which we are playing into with this very post). Either way, it’s fun to imagine Carter crushing baseballs into the Bronx skyline.

Mailbag: Axford, Qualifying Offers, Judge, Aoki

Six questions and six answers this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up questions, comments, links, or anything else throughout the week.

(Bob Levey/Getty)
Axford. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Mat asks: What are your thoughts on acquiring John Axford? With the need of another arm down the stretch wouldn’t it make sense to acquire him?

Axford, 30, has pitched to a 3.86 ERA and 4.46 FIP this year, losing his closer’s job to Jim Henderson. He struggled last year as well (4.67 ERA and 4.06 FIP), mostly because he was walking everyone (5.06 BB/9 and 12.6 BB%). Axford has cut back on the free passes this year (3.60 BB/9 and 9.2 BB%), but instead he’s crazy homer prone (1.54 HR/9 and 15.8% HR/FB). The homers have been trending in the wrong direction for years now.

The problem with Axford isn’t so much his performance — he does still miss a ton of bats even though his 9.51 K/9 and 24.2 K% are career-lows — but his salary. He’s earning $5M this year in the first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two, so his salary is only going higher and higher. Saves pay, and he had a ton of them early in his career. Axford is going to be an $8M+ reliever as soon as next year, at which point he might be a non-tender candidate. I do like him as a buy-low guy in terms of what he can do on the mound, but there’s no way I’d be okay with the Yankees paying him that much. Way too risky.

John asks: Which free agents can the Yankees provide a qualifying offer to at the end of the season? I’m assuming Phil Hughes and Curtis Granderson would be eligible? Joba Chamberlain wouldn’t be? Are Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda?

Any player with more than six full years of service time is eligible for a qualifying offer, so all of those guys you named plus Robinson Cano, Travis Hafner, Boone Logan, Mariano Rivera, and Kevin Youkilis can receive one. Tim Dierkes has estimated the qualifying offer at $14M for this coming offseason, so right off the bat we can rule out offers for Joba, Hafner, Logan, and Youkilis.

Cano is absolutely getting one if he does reach free agency, there’s no doubt about that. Rivera is retiring, so there’s no sense in making him an offer and risk having him complicate the payroll situation by surprisingly accepting. Pettitte is the same boat since it’s Yankees or retirement for him, plus at this point it’s debatable if he’s even worth that salary. If Kuroda continues to pitch has he has this year (and last), I think he’d get an offer. I think they’d welcome him back with open arms at that salary in 2014, especially since it’s a pay cut.

Hughes is very much up in the air and right now I lean towards no offer. That could change in a hurry if he pitches well in the second half though. Some team will give him Edwin Jackson money this winter (four years, $52M), but even if he surprises and accepts a qualifying offer, he’d be tradeable. The Yankees might have to eat some salary, but it’s doable. Hughes is definitely a wait-and-see thing, no sense in giving a definitive yes or no in early-July.

Thomas asks: What seems to be the holdup on signing the supplemental first round pick Aaron Judge?

(Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Earlier this week, both Jon Heyman and K. Levine-Flandrup reported there has been no change in negotiations. The Yankees offered him slot money (~$1.68M) and they’re waiting for him to accept. As our Draft Pool page shows, the team has more than $300k in pool money saved, so they could offer him roughly $2M before next Friday’s signing deadline if push comes to shove.

Jim Callis recently said every unsigned first round pick will sign before the deadline — Judge and four others remain unsigned at this point — so I’ll defer to the expert and say it’s only a matter of time. It would be very tough for Judge to return to school and come out as a senior next year with improved stock and earning potential, though it is certainly possible. He and his advisor are presumably holding out for every last penny, which is understandable.

Tom asks: What about Norichika Aoki of the Brewers as a trade target? Looks like he has an option for ’14 so he could contribute in the OF now as well as next year.

Aoki, 31, is one of the very best bargains in baseball. He’s hit .289/.354/.410 (112 wRC+) since signing a two-year, $2.25M contract prior to last season, and this year’s at .292/.364/.373 (108 wRC+) in 360 plate appearances. That dirt cheap contract includes a $1.5M (!) club options for 2014, which will be picked up no questions asked.

The Yankees need to add some on-base skills to their lineup, and Aoki is basically a better (and cheaper) version of Ichiro Suzuki at this point. He doesn’t strike out (7.6%) but will walk (7.7%), steal bases (39-for-55, 71%), and play strong defense in right. Aoki is a big-time ground ball hitter (58.4%), so Yankee Stadium won’t automatically boost his power output. I don’t know what the trade cost will be, but it won’t be cheap given his salary and production. If the price is right and the Yankees could somehow unload Ichiro, they should absolutely go for it. I just don’t see it happening.

Hard to believe he made it to MLB despite being so afraid of the ball. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Hard to believe he made it to MLB despite being so afraid of the ball. (Bob Levey/Getty)

Winter asks: Is Chris Carter a potential trade target? He’s better than Lyle Overbay, has some OF experience, is a good young player under team control until 2019 (not arb-eligible until 2015), and plays for a non-contender who’ll be a seller at the deadline.

The 26-year-old Carter is a classic three-true outcomes slugger. He strikes out a ton (36.7%), walks a ton (11.6%), and hits for plenty of power (17 homers and a .235 ISO). It’s any park power — hitter’s park, pitcher’s park, you name it and he can clear the fence. As you said, he’s still in his pre-arbitration years and has plenty of team control left.

People hate strikeouts, but there’s nothing wrong with having one high-strikeout masher in the lineup. It’s a problem when you have three or four in the lineup. Granderson is almost certainly a goner after the season, which would leave Carter as the team’s lone grip-it and rip-it hitter. At the very least, he could platoon with Overbay at first and Travis Hafner at DH while spot starting in left field despite his awful defense.

I don’t know what the Astros want in return, but they did give up Jed Lowrie to get him, so I doubt he’d be cheap. The Yankees need power in the worst way, especially from the right side, so Carter would be a very good fit despite his obvious flaws. As we’ve seen this year, it’s very tough to win in the AL East when you can’t hit the ball out of the park.

Paul asks: What have you replaced Google Reader with?

Consider this the rare non-baseball-related public service question. Though I guess it is baseball-related if you read a lot of baseball blogs.

Anyway, I’ve settled on Feedly after toying around with Hive Reader and The Old Reader. Feedly just added a GReader-esque web app — previously it was a browser plug-in, which was annoying — and I think their Android app is top notch. Joe and (I think) Ben are using Digg Reader with positive reviews. I haven’t tried it yet. Pretty much everyone I know is using one of those four services at this point. Hope that helps.