Report: Astros, Orioles have interest in Maxwell

Via George King, both the Astros and Orioles have interest in Justin Maxwell. They have yet to call Brian Cashman about the right-handed hitting outfielder, however. Maxwell is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers, so the Yankees will have to decide what to do with him relatively soon. With Curtis Granderson (elbow) and Nick Swisher (knee) banged up, I’m sure they’re going to hold onto him for just a little bit longer.

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Early season trade candidates: hold or deal?

The Yankees might be forced to trade Maxwell soon (via Reuters Pictures)

As March wears on, different needs arise for different teams. Some suffer injuries and need to trade for additional help. Others make it through the spring in relatively healthy shape and have surpluses from which they can trade. The Yankees, to this point, fall into the latter category. They not only have six starters for five rotation spots, but they also have an out of options player with some value along with a marginal player generating a little interest. That puts them in a position of strength. How far should they go in taking advantage of it?

In theory, the Yankees could trade all three players in question: Freddy Garcia, Justin Maxwell, and Ramiro Pena. But trading from a surplus isn’t always the right answer. As the Yankees experienced this spring, plans can change in an instant. Holding onto those players in some way or another can work out for the better. So how should the Yankees approach the situations for Garcia, Maxwell, and Pena?

Freddy Garcia

After Garcia helped patch up the 2011 rotation, the Yankees were apparently eager to bring him back into the fold. Shortly after they offered him arbitration, they signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract. But he wasn’t exactly their Plan A. After the Yankees acquired both Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, Garcia was seemingly squeezed out of a rotation spot. That appears to still be the case, despite his strong spring performances.

The Yankees reportedly offered Garcia to the Marlins, but were rebuffed. It’s not clear whether the Marlins weren’t interested at all, or whether the Yankees asked for too much in return. Whatever the case, it does appear that the Yankees are willing to deal Garcia to help clear up their pitching situation. If that is the case, I hope that they didn’t work out a deal with the Marlins because they were asking for too much in return. Garcia can be greatly valuable to the 2012 team.

While he’ll likely start in the bullpen, Garcia could very well end up in the starting rotation before long. Ivan Nova, who suffered an elbow injury in the Yankees’ final game of 2011, has experienced a rough spring. He has by far the worst numbers of any Yankees starter. He does have a track record, and there appears to be little chance he’ll start the season anywhere but in the rotation. But if he falters in April, the Yankees could move quickly and push Garcia into the rotation.

The problem with trading Garcia is that he’s relatively valuable to both the Yankees and other teams. A No. 4 or No. 5 starter who can consume 150 to 170 innings per season is nothing to scoff at, even for a middling team. After all, those innings have to come from somewhere. While the Yankees appear to have a surplus now, and another reinforcement on the way in May, that might not always be the case. Few teams go through the season with even six starters, so the Yankees can definitely use Garcia.

On the other hand, what can they get in return for him? The 2012 team is pretty set. Maybe they could acquire a bullpen arm, but rare is that team that has a glaring need in the rotation while also having a spare, useful bullpen arm. Any bench upgrade would be marginal at best. It seems unlikely that a team would trade a legit B prospect for Garcia. That is, the Yankees probably aren’t going to get back as much value for Garcia as they can potentially realize from him themselves. He might not be an ideal fit in the bullpen, but his capacity to jump into the rotation is probably more valuable than anything they’d get in return.

Justin Maxwell

Mike wrote about Maxwell yesterday, so there’s no need to dig too deeply into his case. It all boils down to a lack of viable options for him. The Yankees can’t send him down to AAA without first passing him through waivers, and as Mike noted it’s unlikely that he’ll pass through. Their only other options are to carry him on the 25- man roster or to trade him. Since they don’t have room on the 25-man, a trade seems the most likely route.

When it comes to trading a player like Maxwell, urgency is the key. How badly does a team need outfield help, and where are they in the waivers order? Finding a relatively desperate team far down on the waivers list is the key. Otherwise, teams might hold onto their trade chips and simply wait for the Yankees to waive him. They can play one team off another, but for a player of Maxwell’s caliber that might not be very effective. Odds are that Maxwell joins another organization and the Yankees get little to no return for him.

Ramiro Pena

Believe it or not, there is a team potentially interested in Pena’s services. The Phillies will start the season without Chase Utley and Michael Martinez. With Placido Polanco also dealing with an injury, the Phillies could certainly use some infield help. We learned over the weekend that they have some interest in Pena. Unfortunately, as Mike said, he’s not going to fetch much in return.

Pena does have some value to the Yankees. He’s already on the 40-man roster, and can play high-quality defense. Since he’s one of three players on the 40-man roster who can play shortstop, he’s probably more valuable to the organization than the couple hundred thousand dollars or D-prospect he’d fetch in a trade.

Having a surplus is always a nice thing. It leaves a team with options that its competitors do not have. The Yankees could try to cash in its trade chips for prospects or other useful parts, but that just doesn’t appear likely in this case. They might be forced into that position with the out-of-options Maxwell, but in the cases of Garcia and Pena they have players who provide value in their depth. That value is, in all likelihood, greater than what they’d receive in return from another trade. If the Yankees can get back a decent prospect in a Maxwell/Garcia package, so be it. But unless they find something that will significantly improve their farm system, they should hold onto their surplus. They never know when they might need it.

Justin Maxwell’s Big & Meaningless Spring

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Late-March is a cruel time of year for baseball fans. Spring Training games have become dull and monotonous while regular season games are still two weeks away. It’s a horrible limbo of meaningless baseball, and we often wind up spending too much time trying to find meaning in games that don’t count. We know we shouldn’t do it, but subconsciously it’s unavoidable. We want to believe the big breakout is coming or that so-and-so really did develop another pitch. It’s just a natural part of Spring Training.

Yankees camp is no different this year. Career journeyman Clay Rapada looks like the answer to our LOOGY prayers, Phil Hughes has been throwing the best changeups of his life, and both Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez look like the best hitting shortstop in the American League. Perhaps the most impressive player in camp has been career up-and-down guy Justin Maxwell. He’s hit .414/.485/.586 in camp after putting together a .418 wOBA with 16 homers in 204 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton in 2011. His performance has been so impressive that some are wondering if he should break camp with the team rather than someone like Raul Ibanez.

I think there is some merit to that line of thinking, especially since Maxwell is just 28 years old and has significant tools. He passes the eye test at 6-foot-5 and 235 lbs., and all throughout his lengthy Triple-A career (924 PA) he’s shown power (.192 ISO), patience (12.4 BB%), and speed (62-for-79 in stolen base attempts, 78.5%). Maxwell is also capable of playing all three outfield spots, though his throwing arm isn’t anything to write home about. His biggest drawback is his complete inability to make consistent contact. Maxwell has struck out in 30.6% of his Triple-A plate appearances, and that big Triple-A performance last year came with a 35.3 K%. That’s unfathomable. It’s a Mark Reynolds strikeout rate against minor league pitchers.

Back in December I wrote about the possibility of Maxwell serving as the Yankees fourth outfielder/lefty masher should Andruw Jones sign elsewhere, and my opinion of him hasn’t really changed. Thirty-three plate appearances in Spring Training shouldn’t sway your opinion about any player. Hell, 33 regular season plate appearances shouldn’t change your opinion. It’s a week’s worth of playing time, that’s it. Maxwell has done the majority of his work off the bench this spring, which means a lot of that damage has come against the opponent’s second string, minor league pitchers we already know he can mash. The only thing we’ve learned about Maxwell this month is that his shoulder is healthy after he tore his labrum making a catch at the wall last May.

If nothing else, Maxwell has been an interesting story this spring. I have a hard time seeing him as anything more than a backup plan at the moment, and the Yankees are going to be forced to make a decision about his future pretty soon because he’s out of minor league options. With so many teams looking for outfield help — Braves, Mets, Nationals, Marlins, and Indians, among others — there’s bound to be a trade match somewhere. Out of options players usually don’t command much in a trade, but maybe Maxwell’s big spring means the Yankees can get a Grade-C prospect in return rather than a Grade-D prospect. It is Spring Training after all, a man can dream.

I think last year’s shoulder injury really derailed whatever Yankees career Maxwell may have had. Had he stayed healthy all year, we certainly would have seen him with the big league team last summer, perhaps instead of Dickerson for all that time. We never got a look at him as a September call-up and never got to see what could come from extended work with Kevin Long. There’s a non-zero chance the Spring Training performance is a sign of things to come, but I wouldn’t put money on it. The Yankees don’t have much time left to evaluate him, but a decision about his future is due soon.

Pondering the three without options

As far as Spring Training position battles go, the Yanks have few, and those they have aren’t very compelling. The pitching staff has the non-problem of having three hurlers — A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes — for one rotation spot, and barring an injury, the starting lineup is set in stone. It will be, then, business in Tampa as the Yanks will use March to fine-tune the team for the regular season.

Yet, the club will have to make some decisions, and it may come down to those who are out of options. As I see it now, the Yanks have 23 guys with their tickets punched to the 25-man roster. It goes a little something like this:

Pitchers (12)
Burnett
Garcia
Hughes
Kuroda
Logan
Nova
Pineda
Rivera
Robertson
Sabathia
Soriano
Wade

Catchers (2)
Martin
Cervelli

Infielders (5)
Cano
Jeter
Nunez
Rodriguez
Teixeira

Outfielders (4)
Gardner
Granderson
Jones
Swisher

This array of players leaves us with few noticeable holes. With Jones set to DH against southpaws, they could use another bat who can handle right-handers and serve as a weapon off the bench. They also could carry another infielder, as they did for much of last year. The in-house options include Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird while Eric Chavez remains a free agent. We’ve heard Bill Hall’s name bandied about, but he hasn’t yet received his non-roster invitation to Spring Training yet.

For the empty outfield/DH spot, the Yanks could still look to the free agent market for help. Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez and Hideki Matsui have all been linked, one way or another, to the Yanks this winter. It’s possible one of them could take spot No. 24 or 25. The Yanks though will let those players’ prices drop before making any sort of move. If one happens, it will be on our terms, and not yours, the Yanks’ brain trust has telegraphed.

The in-house options are Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, and they’ll either break camp with the Yanks or on some other team. The two of them — along with Boone Logan, the only lefty on the 40-man with Major League experience — are out of options. The Yanks will have to take Dickerson and Maxwell with them north if they want to keep them or else the two players will have to clear waivers to remain in the Yanks’ system.

Throughout the winter, Mike has examined these two players in depth. He looked at Dickerson’s possible role earlier this month and Maxwell’s potential in December. Of the two of them, Dickerson seems to hit right-handers far better than Maxwell has, and that’s a need the Yanks have right now. The club may also be able to flip Maxwell for something reasonably useful as he’s a few years younger than Dickerson.

Complicating the roster dance are Brad Meyers, a right-hander, and Cesar Cabral, a lefty. The Yanks grabbed these two guys during the Rule 5 draft. Meyers would have to go back to the Nationals if the Yanks opt to exclude him from the 25-man, and Cabral could pick free agency as he’s a two-time Rule 5er. Cabral also would give the Yanks more bullpen options and pitched exceptionally well in Winter Ball this year. As Logan is out of options, he won’t bump Boone, but a solid spring could make the Yanks think twice about a second southpaw in the pen.

So for the Yankees, the big battles are all but over. We have to pick a fifth starter from a group of three guys who are all flawed for various reasons, and the last two guys on the team have to earn that trip to the Bronx. The guys without options have the inside track, but even then, they’re expendable AAAA types. With two weeks until pitchers and catchers, that’s not a bad problem to have.

The Justin Maxwell Option

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very balanced outfield situation, at least in terms of the 40-man roster. Their big league outfield is set with Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner, a three-man unit that’s been the best in the AL and arguably the best in baseball over the last two seasons. Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are both on the 40-man but are still a ways off from being big league options. Then there’s Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, the former of whom we saw quite a bit of last season. The latter is still very much an unknown.

Maxwell, 28, was having a dynamite season with Triple-A Scranton this past summer (.418 wOBA and 16 homers in 48 games) before he tore his labrum robbing a homer at the wall. He had surgery and his season was over before the calendar flipped to June, though he picked up some service time late in September when the Yankees called him up and immediately placed on the 60-day DL to free up a 40-man spot for Jesus Montero. When they needed to clear more 40-man space this offseason, they opted to release Greg Golson and designate Colin Curtis for assignment rather than dump Maxwell. That’s a pretty good sign that they think he has some value.

Chad Jennings spoke to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman yesterday, who indicated that Maxwell is expected to be healthy next season and has a chance to contribute off the bench. “He’s got some tools, and he’s a high-caliber individual who works,” said Newman, who isn’t kidding about the tools part. When Baseball America ranked Maxwell as the Nationals eighth best prospect prior to the 2010 season (the last time he was prospect eligible), this was part of their scouting report (subs. req’d) …

A physical specimen with plus athleticism, Maxwell has above-average power potential and a patient offensive approach. Nats hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first-base coach Marquis Grissom got the idea to lower his hands to chest level after watching video of other long-levered sluggers like Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield, and the adjustment fueled Maxwell’s September surge by getting him in a stronger position to drive the ball more consistently. He’s a plus runner who stole 41 bases in 50 tries last season. He’s also an above-average defender in center field with excellent range and instincts.

As wonderful as that sounds, Maxwell’s weakness has always been his inability to make consistent, quality contact. He’s drawn walks (14.6%), hit for solid power (.178 ISO), and been a threat on the bases (11-for-13 in stolen base attempts) in his 260 big league plate appearances, but he’s hit just .201 and has struck out 31.9% of the time. In 924 career Triple-A plate appearances, he owns a 12.4% walk rate (very good), a .192 ISO (also very good), gone 62-for-79 in stolen base attempts (78.5% success rate, pretty good), a .259 batting average (decent at best), and a 30.6% strikeout rate (very bad). The guy does everything but get the bat on the ball with regularity.

If the Yankees truly feel that Maxwell can help the team off the bench, his bench chance to do so would be as a defensive replacement and a platoon bat against lefties. He has shown a sizable platoon split in his limited big league time, and also demolished lefties in Triple-A this past season with a similar split throughout his minor league career. In a perfect world, the Yankees would just send Maxwell back to Triple-A this season with an eye towards the second half or 2013, but he’s out of minor league options. They can’t send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and that creates a bit of a roster problem.

When it comes to next year’s fourth outfielder, I think Plan A, B, and C should be Andruw Jones. He did everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to do in 2011 — hit for power, draw walks, hit lefties, play average defense, contribute in the clubhouse — which was nothing more than a repeat of his 2010 season with the White Sox. If he wants to come back, and it sounds like he does, then they should welcome him back with open arms. However, if the Yankees drag their feet and Jones ends up elsewhere, letting Maxwell compete with a non-roster invite or two (Scott Hairston? Conor Jackson?) for the job is a pretty decent backup plan. He has some interesting tools, so they might as well see what he can do if Andruw doesn’t come back.