The Yankees agreed to sign reliever Matt Thornton to a two-year contract yesterday, and today David Laurila at FanGraphs posted an interview with the southpaw. He spoke about his development from a guy who “still knew nothing about pitching” when he was drafted into one of the best relievers in baseball, as well as his struggles in the ninth inning and his succeess throwing almost nothing but fastballs. Thornton’s unconventional career path is pretty fascinating, so check it out.
I was planning to write one of these thoughts posts this week anyway, but at least yesterday’s activity gives me a decent title. The Yankees agreed to sign both second baseman Brian Roberts (one-year, $2M) and left-hander Matt Thornton (two years, $7M), two moves that put a small dent in a lengthy offseason wish list. They still need a third baseman, a starting pitcher, another reliever (preferably two), and general depth. Here are some nuggets for the time being.
1. The Roberts signing really doesn’t accomplish much in my opinion. You can’t count on him to stay healthy and even if he does manage to stay healthy, there’s no guarantee he’ll be any good. Gotta hope his .284/.327/.441 (109 wRC+) line against left-handers this past season was legit and not just noise from a 110 plate appearance sample because his .249/.312/.392 (90 wRC+) overall line was pretty mediocre. Everyone loves those high-risk, high-reward signings, but I think Roberts is better described as low-risk, low-reward. The Yankees are said to be seeking more infield help and that’s a good thing. I’m not sure they actually added any yesterday.
2. Thornton, on the other hand, is a real nice pickup as long as Joe Girardi uses him as a true lefty specialist and doesn’t force him out there against righties. He was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball once upon a time but that is no longer the case. Thornton has been better than Boone Logan against same-side hitters these last few years (doesn’t strike out as many but also gives up fewer extra-base hits) and the Yankees landed him for less than half the total cost. Heck, they got him for less than J.P. Howell (two years, $11.5M). Everyone wants a lefty reliever who can handle both lefties and righties, but there aren’t many of those guys around. As long as Girardi keeps him away from righties, Thornton should be very useful.
3. At some point soon, the Yankees will need to open 40-man roster spots for Roberts, Thornton, and the still not officially signed Carlos Beltran. Vernon Wells and David Huff stand out as obvious candidates to be taken off the roster, but after them? I have no idea. Ramon Flores and Nik Turley could end up going, but the latter would surely get plucked off waivers since he has minor league options remaining and is both left-handed and breathing. It seems unlikely Eduardo Nunez will go because the team isn’t in the position to give away middle infield depth. Maybe they’re working on dumping Ichiro Suzuki for some salary relief, which would also clear a spot. Either way, the Yankees have a serious roster crunch at the moment.
4. Grant Balfour (two years, $15M with the Orioles) and Jose Veras (one year, $4M with the Cubs) signed with new teams yesterday and both guys made a ton of sense for the Yankees, especially on those terms. Those are pretty sweet contracts, more than reasonable in this market. Both guys were handed the closer’s role by their new teams though, so this isn’t a simple “they should have matched the offers” situation. David Robertson should get the ninth inning next season for reasons Joe outlined over the weekend, but damn, I would have loved to see the Yankees add Balfour and/or Veras on those deals.
5. The Yankees have committed just under $231M to five outfielders over the last calendar year (Ichiro, Wells, Alfonso Soriano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Beltran), which is mind-blowing. Only one of them is younger than 35 and only one (Beltran) feels like a lock to post an .800+ OPS next year as well. Sure, Soriano could do it, but he needed that huge finish with New York to finish with a .791 OPS this past season. He turns 38 next month and, as Ichiro and David Justice showed, big finishes following a midseason trade don’t always carry over to the next season. The point of this is … I dunno. I guess that the team has spent a ton of money on outfield help over the last year and didn’t get a whole lot of offensive help in return.
6. This crossed my mind the other day and I figured I’d bring it up here: how long will it be before another homegrown Yankee tops a .900 OPS while playing a full season/qualifying for the batting title? The last five guys to do it were Robinson Cano (2010 and 2012), Jorge Posada (2003 and 2007), Derek Jeter (1999 and 2006), Bernie Williams (1996-2002), and Don Mattingly (1984-1987), so it’s not exactly a common occurrence. Gary Sanchez is a possibility but the kid is 21 with only 23 games of experience above Single-A. Hard to pin it on him. There’s no obvious candidate. Could it be another ten years (the gap between Mattingly and Bernie) before it happens again? Fifteen? Five?
Jack Curry of YES reports that the Yankees have signed left-handed reliever Matt Thornton to a two-year, $7 million contract. It might seem as though he replaces Boone Logan, who recently signed a three-year deal with the Rockies, but Thornton probably isn’t the setup man we saw the past few years in Chicago. Today his value is more as a lefty specialist.
A former first-round pick (Seattle in 1998), Thornton struggled upon promotion to the big leagues. In Spring Training 2006 the Mariners swapped him for fellow first-round disappointment Joe Borchard. The White Sox easily got the better of that deal, as Thornton blossomed into an effective reliever who worked his way into late-inning roles.* From 2008 through 2010 Thoronton threw 200 innings with a 2.70 ERA, which amounted to the third-highest bWAR in that time frame among relievers (Mariano Rivera, of course, was first).
*White Sox GM Rick Hahn, then the assistant GM, spoke to a room of FanGraphs writers in 2010; Mike and I were both in the audience. In talking about why Thornton succeeded in Chicago after failing in Seattle, Hahn said that they didn’t try to make Thornton into a pitcher he wasn’t. Paraphrased, Hahn said, “He told us he wanted to throw the ball as hard as he could right down the fuckin’ middle, so we let him.” It sure seemed to work.
In recent years Thornton has slipped quite a bit. At a time when strikeout rates have risen his has fallen, from a peak of 12 per nine in 2010, to 6.2 per nine last year. That production dip has come mostly against right-handed hitters. After holding them to a .254 wOBA in 2010, he grew worse in each of the last three years, all the way to a .370 wOBA against righties in 2013. It is pretty apparent now that Thornton is a lefty-only guy, making him a bit less versatile than Logan, who played more of a full-inning setup role during his final two years in New York.
Through the years Thornton has remained durable, serving just two DL stints since suffering a herniated disc all the way back in 2003. The first was for forearm soreness in 2010, which is always cringe-worthy. Obviously he’s avoided the dreaded Tommy John Surgery that often follows such a diagnosis. His other stint was last summer, with an abdominal strain. They happen, though it can’t be encouraging. The Yanks will need Thorton at full strength to make a difference.
This signing will not end the Yankees’ search for bullpen help. Joel Sherman notes that they also want to add a late-inning reliever. Given the risk with the Thornton signing, they might prefer Joaquin Benoit to the injured Jesse Crain. Who knows: maybe they’ll go nuts and sign both. But whatever the case, as with Roberts, Thornton is a complementary signing. They still have a ways to go, even as far as bullpen construction goes.
Dare the Yankees dip their toes back into the water of the lefty reliever pool? Brian Cashman has mentioned it as an area of need, yet twice in the recent past he’s been burned. Damaso Marte, after signing a three-year, $12 million deal before 2009, pitched only 31 innings. Pedro Feliciano signed a two-year, $8 million contract last winter and will not throw a single inning for the Yankees. Considering the dearth of available left-handed relievers on the free agent market, the Yankees will likely sit out this round.
Yet the trade market always remains a possibility. Just this morning, in fact, ESPN’s Buster Olney mentioned that the White Sox are shopping Matt Thornton. We’ve heard plenty this winter about the Sox wanting to shed payroll, and losing the two years and $12 million remaining to Thornton would certainly help. Might they match up with the Yankees?
- In the past four years Thornton has been one of the more successful relievers in the league. Since 2008, among relievers with at least 200 IP, Thornton ranks 14th in ERA, 3rd in FIP, 5th in strikeout rate, 11th in home run rate, and 19th in walk rate.
- He absolutely kills lefties: 12 K/9, 0.79 HR/9, 2.71 FIP lifetime against them, despite the terrible start to his career. Since 2009 his FIP hasn’t crossed the 2.00 barrier against left-handed batters.
- While his ERA jumped over the 3.00 mark last year, for the first time since 2007, his peripherals remained solid: 9.5 K/9, 3.17 BB/9, 0.45 HR/9.
- His poor season was more like a poor April. From May on he threw 51.1 innings, striking out 53 to 15 walks and allowing just one home run — 2.45 ERA.
- It might seem obvious, since his overall numbers are so good, but he can handle righties, too. He might walk them at a greater clip than lefties, but in the past four years he’s had little discernible trouble against them.
- He’s not exactly young. The Mariners didn’t call up Thornton until he was 27. He just turned 35, so his contract will end just after he turns 37. That’s not always good news for a guy who relies on mid-90s heat.
- He’s not cheap, either. His contract extension, which kicks in starting in 2012, pays him $5.5 million in each of the next two years. It also has a $1 million buyout of a $6 million club option. The Yankees might not consider that a reasonable allocation of their rising payroll.
- His trade cost might prove prohibitive. While the Sox are shopping him, they aren’t going to give him away. Reliable lefty relievers are a commodity in short supply, and so the Sox could initiate a bidding war and get a bit more than they should for a 35-year-old reliever with $12 million remaining on his contract.
While talking to the FanGraphs staff at spring training, White Sox Assistant GM Rick Hahn shared with us the essence of Thornton: “When he came over here we asked him what he wanted to do. He said, ‘I want to throw the ball right down the [expletive deleted] middle and see if they can hit it.’ So we let him throw the ball right down the [expletive deleted] middle.” It has worked exceedingly well for him during his five years in Chicago, and particularly in the last four. Yet that might be reason for pause. Can Thornton continue dominating hitters with his mid-90s heat for the next two years?
The problem with trading for Thornton straight up is finding reasonable value for both sides. Given his age and skillset, his contract might seem like too big a risk. At the same time, the White Sox want to receive some value for their reliable lefty reliever. It could cause a stalemate in negotiations with any organization. The better bet might be to pursue a package deal of John Danks and Thornton. Danks is a favorite at RAB. Before the trade deadline we scouted the trade market for Danks, and recently Moshe wrote up a comparison of Danks to Andy Pettitte. The Yankees could fill two positions in such a trade, and the White Sox would have a better chance of realizing value for both. The Yankees, for instance, might not be willing to trade Dellin Betances for just Danks, but might be more willing to included him in a deal for both Danks and Thornton.*
*Just an example. My trade proposal sucks.
The Yankees and the White Sox figure to talk on at least a few occasions this winter. Since the Sox are apparently in a reloading phase, they might wish to shed some players who either have inflated salaries or who will reach free agency soon. The two clubs have worked together in the past on trades, and we could see them hook up again this winter. Seeing Danks in navy blue pinstripes, rather than black, would be a welcome development.
Gotta figure the next day and a half will be pretty hectic with rumors and trades and what not, so let’s start a thread for any Yankees-related stuff throughout the day. I’ll update this post and bump it to the top of the site whenever something noteworthy breaks, so the top bullets will be the latest info…
- The Yankees bowed out of talks for Ubaldo four days ago after Colorado refused to let them perform a physical on the right-hander if they agreed to a trade. For what it’s worth, Jimenez is warming up to pitch against the Padres at the moment, so the report of him being scratch was erroneous. (Sherman)
- Jimenez has been scratched from tonight’s start, and a deal appears to be done. He’s heading to Cleveland. (Heyman & Renck)
- The Yankees took all the prospects Colorado wanted for Ubaldo off the table, and instead offered Phil Hughes and several others. The Rockies weren’t happy with that, so they turned to the Indians and sped up talks. The Yanks tried to sell it as troubled pitcher for troubled pitcher. (all Joel Sherman)
The Yankees’ perpetual search for a reliable left-handed reliever continues right before the trade deadline despite the millions and millions of dollars they’ve poured into players they thought were the solution. Part of the problem is that they’re chasing a unicorn, consistent and reliable relief specialists just don’t exist. By nature, their job is a small sample, and weird stuff can happen in small samples. Relievers are volatile, it’s just the way it is.
But still, that won’t stop them from scouring the trade market for a LOOGY before Sunday’s deadline. George King wrote today that the Orioles and Cubs had scouts at Yankee Stadium for last night’s game, fueling speculation about interest in Mike Gonzalez and John Grabow. This doesn’t pass the sniff test though, it seems very unlikely that the Yankees (or any team) would give up someone off their big league roster for those two relievers. Let’s explore them anything just because they’re very much available and appear to fill a need. King throws the names of Will Ohman and Randy Choate into the ring as well, so let’s tackle them too…
Randy Choate, Marlins
Here’s the guy the Yankees needed to sign this past offseason, not Pedro Feliciano. Even if Feliciano didn’t get hurt and was able to pitch this year, Choate is still straight up better. He’s faced 62 left-handed batters this year and ten have reached base. Seven have gotten hits (just two extra-base hits, both doubles), two have walked, and one was hit by a pitch. That works out to a .121/.164/.155 batting line, and he also has 23 strikeouts and a 64.7% ground ball rate against same-side hitters. It’s not a total fluke, Choate’s been doing this since he resurfaced in 2009. Because he’s signed through next year for dirt cheap (two-year deal worth $2.5M total), the Marlins aren’t desperate to give him away. It’ll take a decent prospect to pry Choate from Florida.
Mike Gonzalez, Orioles
The Orioles’ fail at a lot of things, but giving Gonzalez two years and $12M was as bad as decisions get. He was hurt and ineffective last year, though at least this season he’s provided some value as a situational lefty. He’s held left-handed batters to a .229/.280/.357 batting line with 18 strikeouts and 51% ground balls in 75 plate appearances. The Yankees (or any team, really) could probably get him for next to nothing, just some salary relief and a Grade-C prospect, if that. It’s worth nothing that Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano are very close friends from their days with the Braves, so perhaps having a buddy around lightens Soriano up and helps him pitch better.
John Grabow, Cubs
Another ill-advised multi-year deal for a lefty reliever, Grabow is making $4.8M this season, the second year of his two-year, $7.5M deal. In return for that investment, the Cubbies have gotten a 6.00 ERA in 69 IP since the start of 2010. Grabow’s value comes as a pure LOOGY since he can’t get righties out. He’s held same-side hitters to a .238/.314/.365 batting line with just 11 strikeouts and 41.2% grounders in 71 plate appearances. He’s another guy the Yankees could probably acquire for little more than salary relief, but there’s a reason he’d come some cheap. He’s just not very good.
Will Ohman, White Sox
The White Sox are a bad week away from blowing up the team, and Ohman is one of their few marketable pieces. He’s holding lefties to a .204/.283/.315 batting line with 20 strikeouts and 41.2% grounders in 61 plate appearances this year, but his contract is a bit of red flag. Ohman is making just $1.5M this year but is under contract for $2.5M next season as well. He’s not a rental, and although that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, it’s less than ideal. The Yankees have enough money tied up in lefties as it is, even with Kei Igawa and Damaso Marte coming off the books after the season.
Since I know people are going to ask, yes there’s also Matt Thornton. He’s been one of the game’s best relievers over the last few seasons regardless of handedness, and he’s managed to regain that form somewhat after an early season hiccup. Left-handers are hitting .302/.333/.377 off him this year, but they’ve had sub-.600 OPSes off him the last two years. Thornton is owed $5.5M in 2012 and 2013 before a $1M buyout of his $6M option for 2014 comes into play. He’s not young remember, that contract will take him through his age 37 season assuming the option is declined. It’s easy to forget that you’re not trading for 2008-2010 Matt Thornton, you’re trading for the 2011-2013 version.
* * *
The Yankees still have J.C. Romero tucked away in Triple-A, and he’s performed well in limited action. He’s faced 13 lefties for Scranton and just two have reached base (a hit and a walk) against three strikeouts and eight ground outs (that means zero fly balls). Romero has been effective against lefties in recent years, in between DL stints that is. I’m kinda surprised they haven’t called him up yet just to see what they have before deciding to pull the trigger on a trade, but it’s entirely possible his stuff and command are awful and the numbers against lefties in Triple-A are the function of a small sample size. Either way, I expect their to be a new lefty reliever on the roster one week from today.
It’s been a pretty busy week around these parts and we have quite a few mailbag questions to answer. I’m going to try to answer these as possible because we all know our attention spans aren’t what they once where. If you ever want to send in a question in the future, just use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar…
Bubba asks: What would it take to pry power lefty Matt Thornton from the Chicago White Sox to be our set-up man?
Probably more than it’s worth, really. The ChiSox don’t have a defined closer after non-tendering Bobby Jenks, and right now Thornton is in line for the job. He’s dirt cheap ($3M) and highly effective (2.14 FIP, 12.02 K/9 in 2010), and I can’t even remember the last time a reliever that valuable was traded with one year left on his deal. Maybe the best comparison is Mike Gonzalez, when he went to the Braves from the Pirates. He fetched a 28-year-old Adam LaRoche coming off a .379 wOBA season with 32 homers, and Gonzalez wasn’t as good then as Thornton is now. There were some incidental prospects involved, but no one major. Needless to say, it’s going to take an arm and leg to fetch Thornton, most likely more than I’d be willing to pay for a setup man, albeit a great one.
SNS asks: This may be jumping to far ahead. In light of the lack of availability of starting pitching out there, the one guy who jumps to mind is Cole Hamels. I know he is arb eligible after this year but given the fact that Hamels actually had a better bWAR last year than Lee and is significantly younger, what could he get in arbitration and how likely would the Phillies be to move him? I know they aren’t poor, but can they really afford Halladay, Lee, Howard (and even Oswalt)? While Hamels wouldn’t be available this year, could he be available next winter and how would he play in the Bronx/AL East?
You kinda sorta read my mind, I was thinking about Hamels when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season. I can’t imagine the Phillies will trade him now, they’re clearly going all in before their core hits the inevitable decline, and I think it’s very reasonable to assume they’ll be going for it again in 2012. Philadelphia has $82.3M committed to just four players (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, with some misc. buyouts mixed in) in 2013, but they’re also going to re-sign Jimmy Rollins and Brad Lidge between now and then. Hamels will still be just 29 at that time, and will surely be the best available pitcher on the free agent market.
Hamels is a fastball-cutter-curveball guy with arguably the best changeup on the planet, and I have no issues about him in the AL East. He’s like CC Sabathia in that he’s the kind of guy that can dominate any lineup at any time. He’s already got a World Series MVP and plenty of playoff experience to his credit, so I have no concern about his ability to deal with pressure. I would be stunned if the Phillies look to deal him before he’s eligible for free agency given the construction of their team, but if I was the Yankees I’d be licking my chops in advance of his free agency.
Harrison asks: A quick question with regards to Montero. Aside from the obvious benefit of giving him a little extra seasoning down in AAA, what other benefit might there be for keeping him down there for the first few months? I remember how a bunch of teams in recent years have kept their rookies down in AAA until May or June in order to prevent the arbitration clock from running (Longoria, Price, Posey, etc.). How would that work with Montero for instance?
A player can only accrue service time while in the big leagues or while on the major league disabled list, so teams have been keeping their top prospects in the minor leagues just long enough to delay their arbitration years and/or free agency by a year. It only takes about two weeks to delay a player’s free agency (so they can call the player up in mid-April and then control him for the next six-plus seasons), and about two months to avoid Super Two status (meaning the player goes to arbitration four times instead of three).
If the Yankees were to keep Montero in the minors until the first week of June or so, they could then retain him at close to the league minimum for the rest of the season as well as the 2012, 2014, and 2013 seasons. After that he would get three years of arbitration eligibility. If they called him up right away, they would only control him from 2011 through 2016 (first three years at the league minimum, next three via arbitration). The Yankees have more money than they know what to do with, but they can still benefit from delaying Montero’s call up by just two months. Getting production at a below market salary can only help.
Rafi asks: Mailbag: Given the Yankees’ (Cashman’s?) stance of not negotiating with personnel under contract, as well as what happened with A-Rod’s opt-out, how do you see the Yankees handling [CC’s] situation? They obviously can’t say that if he opts out they won’t pursue him, or they have a rotation on par with Pittsburgh.
The other day Buster Olney said that the Yanks should explore a contract extension with Sabathia now to avoid what will surely be a messy situation when he opts out, but that struck me as completely crazy. I don’t see any reason to assume that risk at all. I fully expect Cashman to stick to his policy of not negotiating with a player until the contract expires, like he’s done with everyone else, himself included.
What they do at that point really depends on their situation. A lot can change in the next eleven months, and that will dictate their course of action. If they’re happy with him and are willing to sign him for another six years or something, they’ll do it. If they’re wary about his workload and ability to be productive going forward, they might let him walk. It’s too early to know for sure, but I wouldn’t expect them to discuss a new contract with CC before he actually opts out.
Junior asks: What is John Danks availability and prospect cost? He is really good and as a lefty can dominate the lefty Red Sox.
Danks isn’t on par with Felix Hernandez or Josh Johnson, but he’s in the next tier. He’s going to earn close to $6M through arbitration next year and then about $9-10M in 2012 before becoming a free agent, so he’s cheap. The club tried to sign him to a long-term extension (they offered him and Gavin Floyd the same four-year, $15.5M deal before the 2009 season, but only of them took it), but Danks was a Scott Boras client at the time and those guys never sign away free agent years (he’s no longer with Boras, however).
I suspect that Danks will be the most costly of Chicago’s starters to acquire, since he’s excellent, young, and pretty damn cheap. He’s the future of their rotation with Mark Buehrle getting up there in years and Jake Peavy starting to rack up the trips to the disabled list, making him even more difficult to attain. A package headlined by Montero is not an unreasonable request, but I’m not sure if that’ll work on Chicago’s end since they just locked up a first baseman and designated hitter for the next three and four years, respectively. If they believe he can catch, well then we’re on to the something.
Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’ll cost an arm and a leg to pry Danks away from the White Sox. It absolutely makes sense for the Yankees to at least inquire, but like I said when I looked at Buehrle and Floyd, these two teams just don’t seem to match up well in the trade. The demands and supplies do not line up.