MLBTR’s Projected Arbitration Salaries

Nova's going to start making big bucks in 2014. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Nova’s going to start making decent bucks in 2014. (Leon Halip/Getty)

As we spend far too much time trying to figure out how the Yankees will rebuild themselves into a contender while staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold next season, there has always been one great big unknown throwing a wrench into things: arbitration salaries. These go to players with more than three years but fewer than six years of service time; the guys who have been in the league long enough to earn a decent salary but not long enough to qualify for free agency.

Arbitration salaries are very tough to pin down (or estimate, for that matter) but can be substantial in some cases, especially as the player moves closer to free agency. Thankfully, Matt Swartz developed an insanely accurate model — it’s been within 5% or so overall — for projecting arbitration salaries, and the information has been available at MLBTR these last three years. Projections for the Yankees’ seven arbitration-eligible players were released over the weekend:

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Update: Here are the updated projections. Only Robertson’s changed.

Nova ($2.22M raise), Robertson ($2.4M), and Gardner ($1.15M) are all projected to receive healthy raises from last season. The other four guys are projected to receive $640k salary increases or less. Nova is arbitration-eligible for the very first time, meaning he’s coming off what amounts to a league minimum salary in 2013. I have to think that’s a pretty great moment for a young-ish player — that first year of arbitration, when your annual salary goes from mid-six-figures to several million bucks.

Anyway, at the projected salaries, I think both Nix and Stewart are obvious non-tender candidates, meaning the Yankees should cut them loose and allow them to become free agents rather than pay that salary. Nix is a perfectly fine utility infielder who played way too much this past season, when he earned $900k. The projected $1.4M is a real stretch for me. If he’s willing to re-sign with the team for $1M or so, great. If not, move on. There are better ways to spend $1.4M, especially considering the team’s self-imposed budget constraints. Same goes for Stewart. No way should the Yankees pay him a seven-figure salary in 2014. That’s madness.

So, assuming the Yankees non-tender Nix and Stewart but keep everyone else, their arbitration class projects to cost $14.8M next season. They currently have six players under contract with a combined $84.9M “tax hit” for 2014 and that includes Alex Rodriguez, who may or may not be suspended. It doesn’t include Derek Jeter, who figures to pick up his player option. So, between the guys under contract and the arbitration-eligible players, the Yankees have eleven players slated to earn $99.7M in 2014, pending decisions by Jeter and the arbitrator overseeing A-Rod‘s appeal.

That leaves the team with roughly $77.3M to spend on the 29 remaining 40-man roster spots (plus leaving space for midseason additions) when you factor in ~$12M or so for player benefits, which count against the tax. If A-Rod is suspended for the entire season, it’ll be $104.8M for 30 remaining roster spots. That sounds like a lot, but remember, Jeter and the inevitable Robinson Cano contract will soak up about $35M of that leftover money all by themselves. Without A-Rod but with Cano and Jeter, it’s more like $70M for 28 roster spots plus midseason additions. Doable, certainly, but that $300M spending spree might be more myth that reality.

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With offense struggling, it’s time to pull the plug on Ichiro and Stewart

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

The Yankees are on their last legs. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.4% chance to make the postseason following last night’s shutout loss and even that feels high. The non-Andy Pettitte starters are struggling, the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has dried up since Brett Gardner got hurt. Obviously Gardner’s absence is not the only reason the team is struggling to score runs, but taking a .273/.344/.416 (107 wRC+) hitter out of the lineup sure does hurt. No doubt about it.

Because of the injuries to Gardner and Derek Jeter — as well as Alex Rodriguez‘s barking calf and hamstring — there is only so much Joe Girardi can do to shake up his lineup going forward. Brendan Ryan (!) has already replaced Eduardo Nunez at short and Mark Reynolds has taken over at the hot corner full-time despite his defensive deficiencies. There are still two more moves that can be made though, and it has more to do with getting unproductive bats out of the lineup than having slam dunk upgrades waiting in the wings.

Since Gardner got hurt, replacement Ichiro Suzuki has gone 2-for-15 while hitting exactly four balls out of the infield on the fly. He came off the bench to get all the at-bats that would have gone to Gardner had he not gotten hurt. Chris Stewart, meanwhile, has gone 3-for-38 (!) in the team’s last 24 games. To make matters worse, both guys have started to slip defensively either due to fatigue or old age or whatever. Ichiro‘s been misplaying balls in right field while Stewart is a passed ball machine. They’re killing the team.

Girardi doesn’t have a ton of alternatives at his disposal despite September call-ups, but he could pull the plug on the veterans and run the kids out there. Zoilo Almonte recently returned from his ankle injury and J.R. Murphy was called up to serve as the third catcher a few weeks ago. Austin Romine would be another option behind the plate had he not been concussed last week. Almonte and Murphy aren’t exactly the next Mike Trout and Buster Posey, but the offensive bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so low that it’s worth giving the kids the try.

No team — extra-especially the Yankees — likes to hand the keys to a playoff race over to a bunch of prospects late in September, but the alternative is two very unproductive veterans. Ichiro and Stewart have stunk all year, this is not anything new, but their recent slumps have been much more pronounced and ill-timed. Almonte had some success during his brief cup of coffee earlier this year and at the very least put together some quality at-bats while Murphy … well he had a real nice year split between Double-A and Triple-A. What more can you say about him? Not much. Change for the sake of change is usually foolhardy, but I think Ichiro and Stewart have forced the issue. Enough is enough.

These last eleven games will tell us nothing about whether Almonte and/or Murphy can help the team next year. Nothing at all. There just isn’t enough time. What they can do is potentially help the team right now. Again, the bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so very low that it won’t take much for them to be upgrades. Could they be downgrades? Oh sure, it’s very possible. But the Yankees aren’t going to postseason if Ichiro and Stewart continue to play everyday. Replacing them with Almonte and Murphy could possibly improve their already slim chances. It’s worth a shot.

Update: Stewart has strained ligaments in foot following hit-by-pitch

Monday: Stewart has some strained ligaments on the top of the foot. He thinks it happened when he tried to get out of the way of the pitch that hit him. “I was able to get through it, get [Hiroki Kuroda] through the game, and that’s what we were trying to do … Get that done and get somebody else in there,” said Stewart to Chad Jennings. There is no fracture and he is likely to miss just a few games rather than a few weeks.

Sunday: Chris Stewart left this afternoon’s game in the sixth inning after being hit by a pitch in the left foot in the third inning. The Yankees are calling it a bruise and are sending him for precautionary x-rays. Stay tuned for updates, etc.

A popular gripe that’s worth considering

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

If the Yankees are serious about successfully completing the Hail Mary pass that is their playoff hopes, they’ll need to win for the remainder of the season. For the first time all season, they’ve had a roster that resembles something competitive, despite still not being at full strength. Last week, Joe discussed a couple ways the team could improve their chances as it pertains to the pitching staff.

Today, I’m here to discuss another idea that seems to be gaining popularity — specifically, upgrading the lineup from within. It’s time for Joe Girardi to give Austin Romine more opportunities. This doesn’t necessarily mean Romine has to be the full-time catcher after this year; if the team wants to pursue the likes of Brian McCann, by all means, they should. We’re talking right now.

Let’s start with Chris Stewart. Through 277 plate appearances this season, he’s batted .231/.305/.302 (.276 wOBA, 68 wRC+). He’s managed four home runs all season (.070 ISO) and has been valued at 0.8 fWAR. He doesn’t walk a ton and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also doesn’t really get on base. I’m not claiming he’s a bad catcher, but I don’t think he’s cut out to be the main guy.

It seems pretty clear by this point that the team values his defensive contributions. In terms of fielding metrics, FanGraphs lists him at 4.3 Fld (based on UZR) which is good but not great. Even though I personal question the legitimacy of fielding metrics in general, particularly as they pertain to catchers, I’m willing to concede that Stewart is probably a capable catcher defensively in general (though he has only thrown out 28% of base runners which is slightly below average, and it seems like he’s bobbled more pitches than one would expect out of a defensive-oriented guy).

What’s interesting though about Stewart is that he’s basically been utilized far more this season than he ever has throughout his career at the MLB level. In 2011, he started 67 games with the Giants (183 plate appearances), which was significantly more than he had prior with any of his former teams (the Padres, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox). This year, he’s already played in 86 games (and counting), and has already accumulated about 100 more plate appearances (and counting). Anecdotally, Stewart has looked gassed at times. If this theory is indeed true, it would make sense that he would be struggling by this point in the season. After all, he does play a very demanding position.

Interestingly enough, Stewart’s splits seem to support this theory to some degree. Through the first half of the year, Stewart produced a .283 wOBA (73 wRC+). While the first half of the season wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, the second half of the year (at least thus far), by comparison, has been considerably worse (.260 wOBA, 57 wRC+). Although Stewart has picked up his production in August, his July was completely abysmal (.200 wOBA, 16 wRC+). Hilariously, his lone home run this month was the first one he hit since May. Although August has been better for Stewart (.316 wOBA, 96 wRC+), he’s also had several more breathers.

On the other hand, Romine is young, healthy, available and has shown increasing value of late. Of course it’s a gamble; I’m sure the fact that he was awful early on in the season hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence in Girardi either. I think the team is in a position though where it has to take risks that could pay off if they’re serious about remaining in the hunt – even if those risks only provide incremental benefit.

Admittedly, Romine’s overall season stats aren’t exactly inspiring (.227/.271/.327, .265 wOBA, 61 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). He’s hit one home run, walks very little (5.0 BB%), strikes out at a fair pace (25.6 K%) and has been graded as below average defensively (-0.2 Fld), though the same caveats about defensive metrics apply to Romine as well, in addition to the small sample size disclaimer (23% caught stealing rate for what that’s worth).

So what’s the draw you may ask? It’s simple; Romine is the hot bat and has been for a while. If he cools off, fine, sub him out without blinking. But for now, take advantage of him and get offense from a position traditionally void of offensive production. During Romine’s eight games started in July, he produced a .385 wOBA (143 wRC+). In August, through eight games he’s improved further (.395 wOBA, 150 wRC+). Am I claiming Romine is the next Posada? Of course not, nor do I have those expectations. I’m just saying give the kid’s bat a chance with more frequency as Stewart really hasn’t giving the team any incentive not too.

Of course, the small sample size disclaimer applies to Romine’s offensive contributions as well. But isn’t it worth considering the idea at this point? At the very least, if Girardi wants to approach this matter conservatively, he could always just level out the playing time between the two catchers rather than giving Romine the starting gig altogether. It may not be desirable for those two players on am emotional level, but it may be what’s best for the team. Changing the roles of Stewart and Romine probably won’t be the ultimate factor that decides the fate of the season, but if it could help, the team should consider it. Unfortunately, it seems like Girardi isn’t quite as sold on the idea.

The future needs to be now behind the plate

I have something to show you:

Chris Stewart spray chart

That is Chris Stewart‘s spray chart since the All-Star break (via Texas Leaguers). You know how they set up those short little outfield fences behind the infield for charity softball games or whatever? I think Stewart would have hit like two homeruns since the break using those fences. According to the batted ball data at FanGraphs, he hasn’t hit a fly ball since August 3rd (!).

This isn’t much of a surprise, of course. Stewart has never hit in his career and no one expected him to this year, yet he’s still somehow falling short of expectations at .219/.296/.279 (60 wRC+). Among the 33 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Stewart ranks 30th in offensive output. As an added bonus, he’s stopped throwing out base-runners — opponents are 13-for-15 (87%) in stolen base attempts against him since the All-Star break. He’s worn out. It happens when a guy who hasn’t started more than 85 games behind the plate since 2005 catches 70 of your first 117 games.

Austin Romine, meanwhile, has shown some signs of life since the All-Star break after being completely unplayable in the first half. He’s gone 8-for-23 (.348) with some power (three doubles and a homer) since the break and that’s kinda cool. Romine also had a few nice games at the plate immediately prior to the Midsummer Classic and has actually thrown runners out of late — four steals and four caught stealings since the break. It’s not much, but when you’re talking about a 24-year-old kid who missed basically half of each of the last two seasons with back problems, it’s encouraging. A silver lining in these rough last few weeks.

“He’s been swinging the bat pretty good,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand last week when asked about upping Romine’s workload down the stretch. “I might give him a little bit more playing time here and there. Stew’s still going to catch a lot, but he’s been swinging the bat pretty good.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

To Girardi’s credit, Romine has started seven of the team’s last 17 games. But that’s not really enough. Stewart is generally bad at this baseball thing and now he’s even worse at it because he’s out of gas. Romine should play more and not just two or three times a week. He should take over as the starter — three-fifths of the rotation has pitched so poorly that they don’t even deserve the luxury of a personal catcher, so that’s not an issue — and that’s it. See what happens. He won’t continue to hit .348 the rest of the way, but he can actually hit the ball in the air and still play pretty good defense.

There’s a pretty good chance Romine might stink at baseball too. Baseball is hard, especially as a young catcher. It took Yadier Molina three years to get his OPS over .700 and seven years to get it over .750, for example. But there’s also a chance Romine might not stink at baseball. It was just last year that Baseball America said his “defense still could make him New York’s long-term future catcher, with the offensive upside of a .270 hitter with 10 homers annually.” That’s pretty good by catcher standards. Certainly better than Stewart, who we know isn’t anything special because he’s 31 and hasn’t been anything special his entire career.

The Yankees are stuck in the unenviable spot of having way too many old players and way too few young players. Their long-term catching outlook is promising with J.R. Murphy in Triple-A and Gary Sanchez in Double-A, but prospects are no sure thing, especially catching prospects. Look at Matt Wieters. Romine has shown actual signs of life at the Major League level these last few weeks and that’s an amazing thing. The Yankees should be thankful for it and they should give him every opportunity to show it isn’t a fluke. As crazy as it sounds, they might even have a long-term building block sitting right under their noses, which is something they desperately need regardless of position.