Wednesday Notes: Astros, Nats, Quintana, Prospects, A-Rod

Musgrove. (Presswire)
Musgrove. (Presswire)

The Yankees return to television tonight with a home game against the Phillies, thankfully. We haven’t seen them play since Saturday. Tonight’s game will start at 6:35pm ET and we’ll have a regular game thread at that time. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Yankees scouted Astros, Nationals

According to Brendan Kuty, the Yankees had scout (Matt Daley!) in Port St. Lucie over the weekend when the Astros and Nationals visited the Mets. Righty Joe Musgrove started for Houston on Friday while righty Erick Fedde was on the mound for Washington on Saturday. Both pitchers allowed one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings in their outings. Musgrove struck out four. Fedde fanned one.

The Yankees have been connected to both Musgrove and Fedde over the last year or so, but only through speculation. Not hard “they want this guy” rumors. Musgrove was mentioned as a possible target during Brian McCann trade talks (I even wrote a Scouting The Market post) while Fedde’s name came up as a potential piece in an Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman trade at least year’s deadline. Obviously neither deal came to fruition.

We could connect some serious dots here. The Astros are said to want another high-end starting pitcher, and with Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out looming, could the Yankees move him? The Nationals don’t have a closer right now and gosh, Dellin Betances sure makes sense for them, no? That said, teams scout either other all the time, and this could be nothing. Still, with the Yankees perpetually seeking young controllable pitching, this report sure is interesting.

Nothing happening with Quintana

According to Jack Curry (video link), the Yankees have “nothing simmering, nothing very hot going on right now” with regards to trade talks with the White Sox about Jose Quintana. Quintana is very much available and last week we heard the White Sox have been scouting the Yankees this spring. See? Teams scout each other all the time. Anyway, point is there’s nothing imminent here, which isn’t surprising.

Quintana started against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last week and was masterful, taking a no-hitter into the sixth before allowing a two-out single and hitting his pitch count. (The bullpen then blew it.) That said, Quintana’s stock didn’t go up or anything. Teams know he’s good. The only way one game can change a veteran pitcher’s trade stock is if he gets hurt. My guess is the White Sox will ramp up their efforts to trade Quintana pretty soon, before he goes all Tyson Ross on them or something.

FanGraphs releases top Yankees prospects, top 100 prospects lists

Over at FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen recently released his top 33 Yankees prospects list as well as his top 100 prospects list for all of baseball. White Sox IF Yoan Moncada claims the top spot on the top 100. Here are the eight Yankees in the top 100:

7. SS Gleyber Torres
34. OF Clint Frazier
40. OF Blake Rutherford
53. RHP James Kaprielian
61. OF Aaron Judge
87. OF Dustin Fowler
91. SS Jorge Mateo
97. LHP Justus Sheffield

This is the only top 100 list Fowler has made this year. Interesting. As for the top 33 Yankees prospects list, gosh, it’s massive. I still haven’t finished reading the entire thing. I’m doing it bit by bit. The write-up covers 68 players total. 68!

“Fawning over the system’s obvious talent ignores its most fascinating aspect: the bizarre collection of pop-up arms. New York appears to be in possession of a player-development machine that has conjured several interesting pitching prospects seemingly out of thin air,” says the write-up, referring to guys like Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, and Chad Green, all of whom came to the Yankees as okay prospects and have since seen their stock rise considerably. Now hopefully some of these guys will turn into productive big leaguers.

Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)
Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)

A-Rod joins FOX full-time

Alex Rodriguez is officially a full-time broadcaster. Last week FOX announced A-Rod has joined the network and will “serve as a game analyst for select FOX MLB SATURDAY telecasts as well as feature reporter for FOX’s MLB pregame coverage and FS1 studio show MLB WHIPAROUND,” according to the press release. It doesn’t sound like he will be in the broadcast booth, does it? Sounds like a studio gig.

FOX owns a big chunk of the YES Network following the News Corp. deal a few years back, though it doesn’t sound like there will be any crossover work here. A-Rod will be on FOX and FOX Sports 1. Not YES. Lame. I assume Alex will continue his special advisor duties with the Yankees in the meantime. His agreement with the club called for him to remain in that role through the end of this year. Either way, A-Rod was really good on television the last two postseasons, and it was only a matter of time until some network scooped him up.

MLB approves wearable biometric device

For the first time MLB has approved a wearable on-field biometric device for players, reports Darren Rovell. The device, which is made by a company called WHOOP, is meant to be worn all day and night, and will record data on sleep, heart rate, recovery, strain, etc. It is not a mandated piece of equipment and teams can’t force their players to wear the WHOOP device. It is the player’s decision given the private data involved.

Clubs have been studying pitcher deliveries using biometrics for years now, though the WHOOP device extends beyond that. Teams are focusing more and more on rest and recovery, because nowadays having the most talent isn’t enough. You need the most talented players performing at their best as often as possible. Rest and recovery are part of that. The Yankees start their Spring Training workouts later in the morning to give players time to sleep in, plus they’ve looked for ways to improve travel in recent years too. I wonder how many players will wear the WHOOP device. It seems like the data could be really useful.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Recent reliever trades show the Yankees hit the jackpot with the Chapman and Miller deals

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In the early days of Spring Training, we’ve gotten a nice little peek at some of the best young players the Yankees have in their much ballyhooed farm system. Aaron Judge socked what will probably go down as the longest home run of the spring, Gleyber Torres doubled to left and right fields the next day, and Clint Frazier has been wearing out the opposite field with extra-base hits. It’s been fun!

Judge was one of New York’s three first round picks back in 2013, and, as you know, Torres and Frazier both came over at last year’s trade deadline. So did outfielder Billy McKinney, who hit a home run Sunday, as well as Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. We didn’t get to see Justus Sheffield make his spring debut Tuesday because the game wasn’t televised, but he was another trade deadline pickup as well.

Last summer the Yankees were uniquely positioned heading into the trade deadline and Brian Cashman & Co. took advantage in a big way. They turned Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, two relievers (great relievers, but relievers nonetheless), into three top 100 prospects, plus several others. The reliever trade market had really taken off in previous months and both the Cubs and Indians were pretty desperate despite sitting in first place. They had baseball’s two longest World Series droughts and wanted to get over the hump. Sure enough, the trades helped both get to the World Series.

Whenever we see trades, especially blockbuster trades that go beyond anything we expected, our first inclination is to think the market has changed. The Yankees got massive hauls for Chapman and Miller, which means every great reliever is going to require a massive Torres/Frazier caliber package going forward. It hasn’t worked out that way. Two other great relievers have been traded since those deals:

  • Pirates trade Mark Melancon to the Nationals for reliever Felipe Rivera and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn, whom Baseball America ranked as the 14th best prospect in Pittsburgh’s system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook.
  • Royals trade Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler, a 25-year-old former top prospect who is still trying to find his way at the big league level. He came with four years of team control.

The Melancon trade was made one week after the Chapman trade and one day after the Miller trade. The Davis trade went down over the winter. Melancon was a rental like Chapman, and while he’s not as good as Chapman, he’s not that much worse either. And yet, the Pirates turned him into a good reliever and an okay prospect. The Yankees turned rental Chapman into arguably the best prospect in baseball in Torres, plus three others.

The Davis trade really drives home how well the Yankees did with the Miller and Chapman trades. From 2014-15, Davis was the best reliever on the planet, throwing 139.1 innings with a 0.97 ERA (1.72 FIP). He also excelled in the postseason (one earned run in 25 innings), closed out a World Series, and has an affordable contract ($10M in 2017). Somehow the Yankees got more for rental Chapman than the Royals did for a full year of Davis.

We can go back even further to show how much the Chapman and Miller trade look like outliers. Last offseason the Padres acquired four prospects for Craig Kimbrel, including two who landed on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list soon after the trade: Javier Guerra (No. 52) and Manuel Margot (No. 56). Kimbrel had three seasons left on his contract at the time of the trade. Well, two seasons and a club option. There’s an escape there in case things go wrong.

When the Yankees traded Miller, he had two and a half years remaining on his contract. They traded him for four prospects, including two who appeared on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list a few weeks earlier: Frazier (No. 21) and Sheffield (No. 69). Would you rather have the Nos. 21 and 69 prospects, or the No. 52 and 56 prospects? I’d take Nos. 21 and 69. Prospect rankings are not linear. There’s not a significant difference between Nos. 52, 56, and 69. The difference between Nos. 21 and 52 is pretty huge though.

(For what it’s worth, the prospect valuations at Point of Pittsburgh indicate Frazier and Sheffield were worth a combined $78.5M in surplus value at the time of the trade. Guerra and Margot combined for $44.8M. Top 20-ish position player prospects like Frazier are insanely valuable.)

The Phillies didn’t got a single top 100 prospect in the Ken Giles trade, and he came with five years of team control. They just got a bunch of players with performance and/or health issues. Two years of Jake McGee was traded for a designated hitter (Corey Dickerson) who hasn’t hit outside Coors Field. Three years of Justin Wilson fetched two okay but not great pitching prospects. Four and a half years of Sam Dyson was given away for two non-prospects. Giles, McGee, Wilson, and Dyson have all been among the game’s top relievers the last few seasons, and look at those trades packages.

Point is, compared to some other top reliever trades, specifically the Melancon and Davis deals, the Chapman and Miller hauls look like a minor miracle. It was a perfect storm for the Yankees. They had an elite reliever on a contract that wasn’t burdensome, and the team that wanted him was not only very desperate to get over the hump and win their first World Series in a lifetime, they also had the tippy top prospects to trade. And then it all happened again.

I don’t want to call the Miller and Chapman trades once in a lifetime events, that’s a wee bit over the top, but given everything that happened leading up to and since the deals, it sure looks like everything came together at exactly the right time for the Yankees. They had the right players to offer very motivated buyers. And maybe it won’t work out and all the prospects will bust. Baseball can be a jerk like that. Right now, at this very moment, the Miller and Chapman deals look like franchise-altering trades. You dream of your favorite team making trades like this.

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.

Assorted Baseball Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hey, baseball! You’re unofficially back and that’s all sorts of awesome. It’s still a while before things really count, but it’s nice to have the game back in our lives on a daily basis, even if it’s just in the form of players doing workouts or taking batting practice or throwing bullpens. Dinner, so to speak, is finally on the stove and we’re beginning to smell it as its scent wafts up to us, enticing us to walk down into the kitchen (even if it won’t really open until April). So, in celebration of the season, here are some assorted thoughts about baseball goings on and whatnot.

How about that Aaron Judge homer? Or Gleyber Torres knocking two doubles and scoring from second (!) on a wild pitch? Or Clint Frazier going oppo on a triple? In the long run, these things mean absolutely nothing. I know it; you know it; the players themselves (probably) know it. But, regardless, it’s nice to see. Spring Training already gives us that nebulously fuzzy feeling of optimism and that only gets heightened when prospects and young players perform well.

While on the topic of young players, whom do you guys think is more likely to start the year in AAA: Judge or Greg Bird? There are cases for both players needing more work. Judge still swings and misses a lot and Bird will need to find his power stroke after missing an entire year; it’s plan to see why those two things could/should be worked out in Scranton rather than the Bronx. Both have nominally capable “replacements” in Aaron Hicks and Chris Carter, though Carter is much more a sure thing than Hicks at this point. I don’t think either of them ends up in AAA to start the year, though, and despite arguments for it, in a year in which the Yankees are transitioning, it’s okay to see some growing pains at the highest level.

The World Baseball Classic is back this year and it’s still something that I like but don’t love at this point. I get why it exists and I think the commissioner and his office genuinely do want to grow the game internationally–as they well should from a business point of view–but the whole thing still feels a bit stilted and awkward and I can’t place why. As a fan of soccer, I enjoy tournaments that the WBC tries to mimic–the World Cup, the European/Copa America tournaments, the Champions League, the FA Cup, etc.–but I just can’t fully buy into the WBC. I think I’d like it a lot more if it were styled after the Champions League with club teams rather than international teams. The only problem there is lack of competition. Only teams from the US, Japan, Cuba, and Korea would really be able to hack it in such a tournament, as teams from the other leagues in the world aren’t anywhere near good enough to hang with the best of the best from those leagues. I suppose, then, that there really isn’t much to do about changing it. Eventually–when no Yankees play in the damn thing–I’ll learn to love it.

Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)
Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)

Speaking of changes, MLB is doing away with the intentional walk process and I feel very…ambivalent about it. I don’t necessarily like it, but I don’t feel nearly strong enough about it to make a stink. At the end of the day, it’s a fairly meaningless change that won’t do much to take away from the game and won’t do much to improve it. It’s a fairly transparent move, in fact, so MLB can say ‘Look! See? We’re making changes!’ without having to do anything radical or spend any money. Regardless of my personal feelings, pace of play is a concern of MLB’s and they’re going to do what they can to speed up play, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help. Will casual fans become die hards or will new fans be born because games go from three hours to two hour and forty five minutes? Eh.

To grow the game, MLB needs to think outside just the field of play. I love baseball not just because it was introduced to me by my family, but because I played it growing up. For many kids in this country–especially kids of color and those in urban environments–the cost of playing baseball is prohibitive. Pumping money into youth leagues of all shapes and sizes–even subsidizing some of them–is one way for MLB to grow both with young people and people of color, demographics the sport has lacked recently.

Additionally, MLB needs to tap into why young people like certain sports. Over the last five years or so, I’ve taught every grade from 7-12 (though only as a day sub for 8th grade) and kids like players more than they like teams. I was the same way when I was younger–I had basketball and football jerseys from a dozen different teams and kids today are no different. They talk about players and stars more than they talk about teams. MLB hasn’t done the greatest job of promoting its new crop of stars and that’s going to hurt them as they compete against star-driven leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Allow player personalities to shine on the field and give them exposure off the field. It’s 2017; act like it, MLB.

Friday Links: A-Rod, YES, Judge, Frazier, Gagne, Littell

Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Presswire)
Guest instructor Al from Miami. (Newsday)

The Yankees are, at this very moment, playing their first Grapefruit League game of the season. Turn on YES or MLB.tv to watch. Here’s our game thread. Don’t miss it. Here are some bits of news and notes to check out in the meantime.

A-Rod to meet with YES

At some point this spring Alex Rodriguez will meet with executives from the YES Network, report George King and Bryan Hoch. The exact reason for the meeting is unclear. It could be something, it could be nothing. Maybe just a meet-and-great or some promo work. Or maybe the two sides will discuss a broadcasting role. YES has a small army of ex-Yankees on their rotating panel of analysts.

Rodriguez has done analyst work with FOX the last two postseasons and he’s been really good. Critics have praised him and diehard fans seem to like him too. A-Rod certainly knows the game and he seems comfortable talking about it in depth on camera. Again, I have no idea why exactly Alex and YES are meeting. It really could be nothing. I selfishly hope it’s about potential broadcasting work though. That would be awesome.

Judge among Law’s top impact prospects for 2017

Keith Law (subs. req’d) recently ranked his top 19 prospects based on potential 2017 impact. Not surprisingly, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson sit in the top two spots. They’re the two best prospects in baseball in my opinion, and both are locked into big league starting jobs this year. Aaron Judge is seventh on Law’s list and Clint Frazier is among the honorable mentions.

I expect (Judge) to take some time to bring (his strikeouts) down this year, but that’s been his history with each promotion in pro ball. Judge is a giant, at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, so his strike zone is just as big, but he has enormous raw power and is an above-average right fielder. As long as the contact he makes continues to be hard contact, he’ll have value even if he’s among the league leaders in Ks.

I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to send Judge to Triple-A to start the season if they feel it’s best for him. I also think they understand he’s going to come with growing pains. We saw them late last year and they’re not necessarily over. At some point they’re just going to have to stick it out with Judge and let him work through the problems, and perhaps that means a .205 average with 185 strikeouts in 2017. Perhaps moreso than any other young player in the system, Judge is going to require a lot of patience, both from the Yankees and fans.

Gagne considering comeback attempt

Eric Gagne, who turned 41 last month, is considering a comeback attempt, according to Ken Gurnick. Gagne hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2008 — he was one-and-done on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot — but he has thrown in various independent leagues the last few years, and he’ll pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Gagne’s agent told Gurnick he sat 93-95 mph in indy ball last year (eh) while Jon Heyman hears he’s throwing 92-93 mph in bullpen sessions right now.

Gagne at his peak was one of the most dominant forces in baseball history. From 2002-04 he had a 1.79 ERA (1.57 FIP) with 38.6% strikeouts and 6.1% walks in 247 innings. During his 2003 Cy Young season he struck out 137 and walked 18 unintentionally in 82.1 innings. Insane. This is the time of year for comeback attempt stories, and hey, if Gagne looks good during the WBC, I’m sure some team will offer him a minor league deal. Maybe even the Yankees.

Littell among top “control” prospects

A few weeks ago Matt Eddy put together a list of the best “control” prospects in the minors. In this case control is not referring to the ability to throw strikes. FIP is based on three things the pitcher controls: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Eddy removed strikeouts and examined the best prospects at limiting walks and homers, and he also threw in the ability to hold runners for good measure. Zack Littell ranked third on his list.

Of the dozen prospects traded by the Mariners this offseason, Littell looks like one of the more promising. The Yankees acquired the 21-year-old North Carolina prep in a straight-up trade for lefty reliever James Pazos. Littell brings a cerebral approach to the mound, which helps his high-spin fastball and above-average breaking ball play up.

I’m still amazed the Yankees were able to get a solid starting pitcher prospect for Pazos, who throws hard and doesn’t do much else. Littell did not make my top 30 prospects list but Baseball America ranked him 24th in the system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook. The Yankees managed to use the industry’s obsession with lefties and velocity to turn Pazos and Justin Wilson into three pretty nice young arms at a time when reliable starters are hard to find and not cheap to acquire. Neat.

Clint Frazier’s possible paths to the big leagues in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees went about their trade deadline business last summer, they appeared to focus on acquiring the best possible talent rather than addressing specific needs. That’s why they acquired Gleyber Torres despite a farm system already loaded with shortstops, and Clint Frazier despite a farm system with more than a few upper level outfielders. They were the best players, so the Yankees took them. Figure out the rest later.

Aside from Ben Heller, a one-inning reliever, Frazier is closest to big league ready among the prospects the Yankees acquired last July. He had been promoted to Triple-A about a week before the trade and he spent the rest of the season at that level. Frazier struggled, hitting .229/.285/.359 (83 wRC+) in his first exposure to the highest level of the minors. He’s not the first kid to have a hard time when he first reached Triple-A and he won’t be the last.

The various prospect rankings tell us the 22-year-old Frazier is highly regarded. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, and MLB.com all ranked him somewhere between the 16th and 39th best prospect in baseball in their recent top 100 lists. His average rank on the top 100 lists was 26.5. Frazier is really good and he’s going to start the season back in Triple-A, which means a big league call-up isn’t far away at all.

“I want to play in the big leagues, and I’ve got to go out there and prove myself,” said Frazier to Randy Miller earlier this month. “I’ve got to be a good teammate and a good player and stay healthy, so when all three of those things come together I think I’ve got a good chance to accomplish the dream.”

Getting to the big leagues is one thing. Staying in the big leagues and carving out a defined role is another, and with young players, those two things can be pretty tough. With that in mind, let’s look at some possible paths Frazier could take to reach the show this summer, using some recent Yankees as examples. These are listed in order of what I think is most likely to happen.

The Aaron Judge Path

Similar to Frazier this year, Judge reported to Spring Training last year after a tough finish in Triple-A the prior season. He got a long look in camp before being sent back to Triple-A for a few hundred plate appearances (410, to be exact). Once he sufficiently mastered Triple-A, the Yankees called Judge up in the second half last season and played him everyday in right field.

It seems very possible Frazier will follow a similar path this year. Go back to Triple-A for a few hundred at-bats, then join the big league team in the second half for an extended audition. Judge’s playing time was created by the Carlos Beltran trade, and the Yankees will have to do something similar for Frazier. Brett Gardner has been on the trade block all winter and he is most likely to go. We’ll see. (We could also call this the Greg Bird path.)

The Robinson Cano Path

The 2005 Yankees and 2017 Yankees are in very different places on the contention curve. The 2005 Yankees were very much a win-now team, and they were coming off their embarrassing ALCS collapse in 2004. The 2017 Yankees are a team in transition, which is YankeeSpeak for rebuild, and the emphasis is on young players. Do they want to win? Sure. But the kids are the priority right now.

In May 2005, the Yankees overhauled their lineup by moving Tony Womack to left field, sliding Hideki Matsui to center, reducing Bernie Williams‘ playing time, and calling Cano up from Triple-A to play second base. Robbie spent the second half of the 2004 season in Triple-A and he destroyed the level early in 2005, hitting .333/.368/.574 with eight doubles and four homers in 24 games. The Yankees needed a spark and Cano provided it.

Frazier has the talent to go to Triple-A this year and completely destroy the competition, a la Cano in 2005. And if the Yankees are in need of offense at the MLB level a few weeks into the season, calling him up will be awfully tempting in that case. Doing so would require clearing playing time. Maybe Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury goes to the bench, or Judge strikes out his way back to the minors. Point is, an early season call-up can’t be ruled out should Frazier rake.

The Jesus Montero Path

Unlike Judge in 2016 and Cano in 2005, Montero already had a full Triple-A season under his belt when he returned to the level in 2011. Montero hit .289/.353/.517 (133 wRC+) with 21 homers in 123 Triple-A games in 2010, his age 20 season. He was seven years younger than the average International League player. Montero was so highly regarded at the time that Baseball America ranked him as the game’s third best prospect prior to the 2011 season.

montero

Sigh. Anyway, Montero returned to Triple-A in 2011 and spent almost the entire season at the level again. He hit .288/.348/.467 (121 wRC+) with 18 homers in 109 games with the RailRiders that year. The Yankees then called Montero up that September and he took over as their regular DH, and gosh, it was glorious. Montero hit .328/.406/.590 (166 wRC+) with four homers in 18 games that September. He also went 2-for-2 in the postseason.

Keeping Frazier in Triple-A all summer before bringing him to the show as a September call-up and installing him as a lineup regular is definitely a possibility in 2017. The Yankees wouldn’t need to clear a roster spot, and it’s easier to give veterans like Gardner and Ellsbury and Matt Holliday days off in September, when they’re feeling the effects of the long season. The September call-up plan is probably the cleanest way to incorporate Frazier into the MLB lineup this year, barring injury.

The Brett Gardner Path

Following a 45-game cameo at Triple-A in 2007, Gardner opened the 2008 season back at that level, then made a few shuttle trips over the summer. Here’s how his 2008 season played out:

  • Opening Day: Sent down to Triple-A.
  • June 30th: Called up to MLB for the first time.
  • July 26th: Send back down to Triple-A.
  • August 15th: Called back up to MLB for good.

Gardner was first called up because both Matsui and Johnny Damon were banged up, and the Yankees needed another outfielder. He was sent back down after the Xavier Nady trade. Gardner was then called back up in August because the Yankees had gotten tired of waiting for Melky Cabrera to turn it around. Melky was sent down with his batting line sitting at .242/.296/.337 (65 wRC+).

The Yankees used Gardner first as an injury fill-in, then as a permanent replacement when a regular wasn’t performing well. Should injuries strike this summer, the Yankees could very well call up Frazier as a fill-in, even if it’s only temporary. He’d be a shuttle player, basically. And up-and-down player who comes and goes as needed. I don’t think it’s likely Frazier will be used in that way, but we shouldn’t rule it out completely.

The Melky Cabrera Path

A few months after calling up Cano, the Yankees determined Womack was unplayable and shifted Matsui back to his natural left field. They made the ill-advised decision to promote Melky, who had only a handful of Triple-A games under his belt at the time, and insert him into the lineup as their regular center fielder. Cabrera went 4-for-19 (.211) at the plate in six games and was demoted after a defensive miscue that resulted in a Trot Nixon inside-the-park homer. It was not pretty.

The parallels here aren’t perfect. Melky started that 2005 season in Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A, and he only played a handful of games at that level before being called up. Frazier already has 38 Triple-A games under his belt and will return there to start the season. More than anything, the Melky plan means calling Frazier up before he’s big league ready and throwing him right into the fire. I don’t think this will happen, which is why this plan is last in this post. Still though, the Yankees have done this sort of thing before, and you can’t rule out doing it again.