Mailbag: Martin, Shoppach, Bourjos, Choo

Just four questions this week, and they’re all geared towards potential roster moves. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us something.

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Matt asks: Given his current performance, do you think the Yankees are going to re-sign Russell Martin (and, should they)? If so, what kind of contract do you think he’s going to get?

I wrote about the catching situation yesterday and how the Yankees should look for an upgrade behind the plate, but that’s obviously easier said than done. I don’t think Martin’s true talent is a .178/.297/.347 batting line, he’s probably closer to a .225/.320/.380 guy. That’s not great but it’s at least tolerable, you can live with it behind the plate as long as he’s solid defensively and hitting eighth or ninth. I think that Martin’s back may still be bothering him, which would at least help explain the recent dreadful production.

Anyway, looking for an upgrade and potentially re-signing Martin after the season are two different thing. I’m sure Russ is kicking himself to turning down that three-year extension before the season but then again the catching market is weak. After Mike Napoli, Martin will be the best free agent catcher this offseason. Someone may and probably will overpay. If the Yankees could bring him back on one of those one-year, “re-establish your value” contracts, wouldn’t that be a pretty decent stopgap option until that 2014 payroll plan takes effect? Pair him with Austin Romine as a veteran caddy, they could do worse as long as they actually split time behind the plate.

Gabriel asks: What about trading for Kelly Shoppach as a back-up? I just read on MLBTR that the Red Sox were thinking of dealing him. Red Sox-Yanks deals are always tough, but what do you think?

Shoppach can hit a little, though he’s not really a .267/.359/.522 hitter like he has been this year. His primary value comes against left-handed pitchers, who he’s tagged for a .249/.348/.465 line over the last three seasons. That’s a useful platoon guy and would be a clear upgrade for the Yankees. The problem, as you know, is the whole Red Sox-Yankees thing. I can’t see those two teams getting together for a trade unless Boston just completely falls apart and decides to sell before the deadline (or even during the waiver trade period in August). I think they would have to get a real prospect in return as part of the trade, otherwise the negative PR from “helping the Yankees” probably isn’t worth it. He’d be a fit, he knows the division from his time with the both the Sox and Rays, but I just don’t think he’s actually obtainable.

Alex asks: According to Jayson Stark, the Angels are willing to give up Peter Bourjos in a deal for the right bullpen piece. Given that David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain will be back this summer, would it be worth dealing Rafael Soriano to pick up an outfielder for the next few years?

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

No, I don’t think so and for a few reasons. For one, the goal is still to win this year and trading Soriano for Bourjos decreases the team’s chances of doing so. Aardsma just had his setback and despite all his progress, we have no idea what the Yankees will get out of Joba until he’s actually on a mound for them. They can’t start counting their chickens before they hatch.

Secondly, I’m just not a big Bourjos fan. I know he’s young and cheap and under control for the next half-decade and all that, but I’m just not a fan of defense-first players. We’ve — well not me specifically, but the baseball analysis community in general — come a long way with advanced defensive metrics but I still don’t have a ton of faith in them. That doesn’t mean I think Bourjos or Brett Gardner are bad players, just that I don’t think WAR accurately grades out their value. Plus could you imagine those two in the outfield at the same time? Even with Curtis Granderson the Yankees would still be lucky to get 45 homers out of their outfield.

The Bombers do need to add some kind of young outfielder for the long-term, but not enough to trade Soriano for him unless you’re getting a Mike Trout or something. Soriano may opt-out after the season and sign elsewhere and leave the Yankees with nothing to show for his tenure, who knows, but the best chance for the Yankees to win this season — before Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, etc. get a year older — is with him in the bullpen closing games.

Joe asks: What is Shin-Soo Choo’s contract status and do you think he would be a viable candidate to play right field and therefore let Nick Swisher walk?

Choo is making $4.9M this season and will be under team control one more time as an arbitration-eligible player next year. He’ll be a free agent after 2013. The Yankees would have to trade for him and any kind of extension would probably be in the range of whatever Swisher gets this winter. Choo’s a year or two younger, better defensively, and more of a on-base/gap power/stolen base guy that someone who hits the ball over the fence. Similar players and the difference between the two really isn’t worth arguing.

I think rentals are generally undervalued; there’s nothing wrong with giving up prospects for one year or even half-a-year of a player if he improves your chances of winning that year enough. Choo falls into that category but I’m not sure if the Indians would actually make him available, and if they did the price would be pretty high since he’s their like, franchise cornerstone guy. Him and Carlos Santana. He’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees but as always, it comes down to the price.

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Poll: Rafael Soriano’s Opt-Out Clause

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An expensive — and injured — luxury at this time last season, Rafael Soriano has become an indispensable part of the Yankees’ bullpen with Mariano Rivera out for the season and David Robertson shelved for a month. He’s pitched to a 0.73 ERA (1.91 FIP) with ten strikeouts and just two walks in 14 appearances since mid-May, and he’s kept the closer’s job despite Robertson’s return from the DL. That’s due to his 12-for-13 effort in save chances.

The return to the ninth inning already has some wondering about Soriano’s future with the team beyond this season, specifically his ability to opt-out of the final year and $14M left on his contract. This morning Joel Sherman wrapped up the situation succinctly…

Some teams in need of closers will appreciate (his performance), indeed, it continues. Soriano might not get $14 million a year, but what if he, say, were offered three years at $30 million? It would probably be in his best interest to jump at that, especially if it looks as if Rivera would return in 2013. Because, in that scenario, Soriano would almost certainly go back to being a set-up man in his walk year and run the risk of not being as enticing to the rest of the sport.

Soriano is a Scott Boras client and Boras isn’t stupid, he’ll gauge the closer market before pulling the trigger on the opt-out clause. The upcoming free agent market for late-game relievers is quite weak, with Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde, and an injured Ryan Madson highlighting the crop. Soriano is the best healthy pitcher of the bunch and teams will pay for saves, just look at Heath Bell last winter.

Losing Soriano to the opt-out after the season would hurt the bullpen but also probably represents a net gain. Not only could the Yankees find a replacement setup man with that $14M, but they should have enough left over to help fill the right field and/or catching holes. Since the opt-out indicates a search for a larger payday, the Yankees could also make Soriano a qualifying offer — one year at approximately $12.5M — and be eligible for draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere. Again, his performance won’t be easy to replace, but it’s not impossible.

We’re still months away from the opt-out becoming an issue, and Soriano’s performance (and health) over these next few weeks are going to play a major role in his decision to stick it out for another season — as Mariano’s setup man — or leave for greener pastures. I’ve been saying since Day One that he wouldn’t opt-out, then again I also didn’t expect him to fill-in for Rivera for what amounts to 75-80% of the season.

Will Soriano opt-out of his contract after the season?
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Soriano unavailable due to blister, should be good for tomorrow

Rafael Soriano was unavailable tonight due to a blister on his right index finger, but it isn’t anything serious and he should be available tomorrow. The YES cameras showed him standing around in the bullpen in the sixth inning and he told Joe Girardi he could pitch if needed, but they held him back. Soriano had pitched in each of the last two games so the night off was probably a blessing in disguise.

Mailbag: Willingham, Soriano, Betances, CoJo

I’ve got five questions for you this week and I was able to keep the answers to four of them reasonably short. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up mailbag questions or anything else.

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Daniel asks: Is Josh Willingham a possible trade target at the trade deadline? He’s having a good year, signed to a reasonable mid-term deal, and the Twins are awful. Any idea what sort of return he would command?

Willingham is having an insane year with the Twins — 173 wRC+ and eleven homers — after signing a three-year, $27M deal this offseason. Given Minnesota’s terribleness — 22-34 with a -70 run differential — and the fact that his value is at its apex at age 33, it would make sense for them to shop him around before he comes back to Earth. Kinda like what the Pirates did with Xavier Nady in 2008. Because he signed as a free agent this winter, the Twinkies can not trade him without his consent until one week from today. In other words, it’s no big deal.

Anyway, the Yankees don’t really have anywhere to play Willingham this season unless Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury lingers. He’s supposed to play in his first minor league rehab game tonight, so we’ll find out how well he’s recovering soon enough. The Yankees will presumably need a corner outfielder to replace Nick Swisher after the season however, and Willingham is affordable enough. His defense is terrible though and his best position is DH. Still, right-handed power is in short supply.

I usually try to think of comparable players when thinking up trade scenarios, but I can’t come up with anyone like Willingham. Older guy who’s still productive with two full seasons left on his market rate free agent contract? Does Miguel Tejada to the Astros work? Scott Rolen to the Reds? Those two got traded for quantity over quality packages. I’m sure the Yankees could cull something together in that case, but this isn’t a vacuum. Willingham would help any team but he really doesn’t fit New York’s roster.

A different Daniel asks: If Rafael Soriano can put together an above average statistical season, what would you say the odds are that he hits the road after this season?

Zero percent. Soriano is owed $14M next season and there’s no chance he’ll match that on the open market. No one wanted to sign him two offseasons ago coming off the best season of his life and I doubt the sentiment has changed this time around. Heck, Ryan Madson is flat out better than Soriano and there was no market for him last winter. I’m sure every club will have Heath Bell in the back of their mind whenever they think about signing a free agent reliever going forward, and that won’t help his case. Considering that he’s a health risk and is very good but not dominant, I can’t imagine any number of saves will have Soriano thinking about opting out of his current deal.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jacob asks: Do you think Dellin Betances needs a mechanical change to help with his walks? Maybe more of a sidearm or 3/4 delivery (Randy Johnson-esque) could possibly allow him to harness his abilities?

Dellin needs something to help with the walks and a mechanical change seems like an obvious solution. I’m not pitching coach or anything, so I have no idea if changing his arm slot or something like that will have a positive impact. I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s difficult to throw strikes with anything below a three-quarters slot, especially if there’s anything more an average velocity involved. Johnson was just a freak of nature and an extreme outlier, I wouldn’t use that guy as blueprint for anything.

At some point the Yankees need to do something about Betances, I can’t imagine an 8.1 BB/9 (19.0 BB%) is good for his confidence. I don’t know if it’s a move to the bullpen or a change in mechanics or a stern talking to, but this can’t go on forever.

Andrew asks: Why is nobody giving more attention to Corban Joseph? I know Single-A is the future, but he seems to have real pinstripes potential if he switches to the left side of the infield.

That’s the problem, he can’t switch to the left side of the infield. Joseph’s defense basically meets the minimum standards at second base and isn’t nearly good enough for short. He hasn’t even played one inning at shortstop in the minors and that’s not an accident. If he had a chance to play the position, they would have tried him there at some point. Joseph can handle third but not well, plus he’s unlikely to provide enough to play the position for a meaningful amount of time.

I don’t really know what Joseph is long-term. He makes good contact from the left side and draws some walks, so he has offensive value. Do they pigeon-hole him into a bench role and hope to hide his defense? Do they try him in an outfield corner and hope he can play second base as well as left and maybe right? I don’t really know. Joseph is on the 40-man though, so the Yankees see something they like in him.

J.R. asks: Mike, with all of the pre-draft deals that apparently took place this year, do you expect MLB to try and crack down on these next year?

They can try, but I’m not quite sure what they can do about it. I doubt the teams are getting these agreements in writing, so they’d basically have to look over the shoulder of every area scout to make sure he isn’t taking money with a player before the draft. I’m sure MLB would love to crack down on pre-draft arrangements, but it just might not be possible. Teams will always find a workaround.

Report: Soriano will remain closer when Robertson returns

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees intend to keep Rafael Soriano in the closer role even after David Robertson returns from his oblique strain in (hopefully) two weeks. I’m a fan of the move, I’ve wanted Soriano to close ever since Mariano Rivera got hurt. It frees up Robertson to be used a little more liberally in the seventh and eighth rather than be married to one specific inning late in the game. Soriano will make you sweat a bit but that’s unavoidable, he’s done the job these last few weeks and actually looks comfortable for the first time in pinstripes.

Rafael Soriano: Closer

All I'm saying is that I only tuck in my shirt for weddings and funerals, and funerals are debatable. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

When Mariano Rivera tore his ACL earlier this month, we knew that life would change in a way we haven’t experienced since 1996. Sure, Rivera had been hurt before, but never in season-ending fashion. That meant handing the closer role to someone not just for a particular stretch of the season, but the entire season, from May through hopefully October.

David Robertson, unsurprisingly, got the first crack. In 2011 he ascended the bullpen ranks, starting as a random reliever before graduating to the seventh inning in Rafael Soriano‘s absence, and then eventually to the eighth once the Yankees lost Joba Chamberlain. Even when Soriano returned, Robertson remained Rivera’s primary setup man. He had earned it with his performance.

In his brief time as closer, Robertson picked up just one save, a sweat-inducing performance against the Tampa Bay Rays. The next night he blew a save, and before he could get another opportunity he landed on the DL with an oblique strain. There are worse things, of course, and Robertson appears to be on his way back; he’ll throw off a mound for the first time on Saturday, three weeks after his DL stint began. Yet in his absence someone else has risen to the occasion.

When the Yankees lost Rivera, there was brief consideration of Rafael Soriano for the closer role. Prior to signing with the Yankees he had been Tampa Bay’s closer in 2010, amassing 45 saves with an ERA well under 2.00. The year before he split closer duties in Atlanta with Mike Gonzalez. All in all, he entered the 2012 season with 90 saves, giving him the vaunted “closer experience” that people in the game seemingly value so highly. Given that experience, and his performance in Rivera’s and Robertson’s absences, he could hold onto the closer role from here on out.

No, Soriano does not make matters easy. He’s yet to record a 1-2-3 inning this season. Yet that merely reminds me of another Yankees closer who kept us on the edges of our seats. In 1996 John Wetteland had a penchant for making things interesting, but he still got the job done. Setting up for him was strikeout artist Mariano Rivera. The Yankees could create a similar dynamic this year, using Robertson to reprise Rivera’s role once he returns.

(Girardi could even go so far as to use Robertson for the Rivera Special, a two-inning setup job, given the emergence of Cory Wade and Boone Logan as late-inning options on days Robertson is not available.)

While it’s difficult to assign causation, Soriano has flourished in his brief time as Yankees closer. In seven appearances he’s struck out six and walked just one, allowing a single run — and that in his first save opportunity of the season. He’s held opponents to a .231/.259/.346 line, which is all the more impressive when you remember that he’s allowed at least one walk or hit in every outing. That is, he’s bending ever so slightly, but he’s not particularly close to breaking.

In many other years, losing Rivera would have crippled the Yankees. They perpetually lacked setup men, so inserting one of those ragtag relievers into the closer role would have likely been disastrous. These days they have a little more cushion — so much, in fact, that there’s a legitimate debate about who should close games. Given the dynamic of the current bullpen, though, the Yankees would probably do best to leave Soriano in the closer role, where he’s clearly comfortable, and using Robertson in tougher situations. Both have shown that they can handle those roles with aplomb.

Mailbag: Robertson, Nunez, Banuelos, Lefties

Five questions and four answers this week, and I tried to keep it short but mostly failed. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar if you want to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Shaun asks: Do you guys think David Robertson will automatically get the closer’s job when he returns? I hope Rafael Soriano flourishes in the role he is most comfortable and we can have Robertson back to Houdini!

That’s exactly what I hope happens. I want Soriano to pitch well regardless of inning, but I hope he really takes to the closer role and dominates so they can use Robertson a little more liberally in the seventh and eighth innings. The Yankees did bump Soriano back to the seventh inning following his DL stint last season because Robertson was dominant, so I hope history kinda sorta repeats itself.

Jay asks: What team has a need for 2nd base? I would think Eduardo Nunez could start on a lot of teams and contribute; just as the Yankees are thinking, putting him in one position could help his defense.

Middle infielders around baseball are just awful these days, so I’m sure a number of clubs would have interest in Nunez as an everyday guy despite his complete lack of defensive value. I know I’d rather take a chance on him than sign someone like the recently released Orlando Hudson.

Nunez has a 95 wRC+ in 450 career big league plate appearances, so he’s fallen just short of league average offensive production. His career Triple-A performance is similar and that’s basically the guy you’re going to get. Nunez will hit for a average but not power, make a ton of contact, and steal a bunch of bases. That’s what most middle infielders do, though at least he offers a chance at improvement at 25 years old. He’s still two years why of his peak, in theory.

The problem with trading Nunez right now is that his value is way down. The Yankees had to send him down because his defense was unplayable and that dropped his stock. We know other clubs — specifically the Mariners and Braves — have had interest in him in the past and I’m sure they’ve love to buy low now. Unless we’re talking about a multi-player package to acquire a star-caliber player, the Yankees are probably better off holding on to Nunez rather than take whatever uninteresting prospects clubs offer in a trade.

(Danny Wild/MLB.com)

Tim asks: Chances or what do you think of the inconsistent Ivan Nova being sent down and Banuelos put in the NYY rotation in his place?

Jeff asks: Is it insane to think that Manny Banuelos can pitch his way into the big league rotation sometime this year?

Gonna lump these two together and will start with the Banuelos part. Yes, I think he could pitch his way into the rotation later this season. I thought there was a chance he would do it last year, but then he had to pull a Dellin Betances impression with the walk rate. Banuelos’ performance has been very encouraging following his return from the lat injury — 15 strikeouts an zero walks in 14.2 IP — but he’s not out of the woods yet. Three starts don’t erase the last year’s worth of command problems. He’s got to continue to show improvement and if he keeps looking like the Banuelos of old (meaning 2008-2010), then I could definitely see him cracking the rotation in the second half.

As for Nova, I also think there’s a chance he could be sent down at some point. Heck, they send him down for less last summer. Obviously this right foot and ankle injury complicates things a bit, but he had a very obvious problem leaving pitches up and thus getting hammered for extra-base hits before the injury. Nova leads the league extra-base hits allowed (32) and has allowed eleven (!) more than any other pitcher who’s made no more than seven starts. Hopefully he shakes off the ankle problem and starts getting pitches down, but if he doesn’t improve and we’re in the middle of June or something, an assignment to Triple-A has to be a consideration. If Banuelos happens to keep pitching well and shows improved command, he’d be the obvious candidate to take Nova’s spot.

Shai asks: Why are good lefty starters worth more than good righty starters? Aren’t there more (good) righty hitters in baseball? I understand the value of a LOOGY but shouldn’t righty starters be worth more?

It’s just a supply and demand thing. There’s roughly a 75-25 split between righties and lefties around the league these days (both starters and reliever), so there are just fewer quality left-handers to be had. Lefties are an even higher prior for the Yankees than other teams because of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium. That’s really all there is to it. There are fewer great lefties around than great righties, so the southpaws are more valuable. Same reason great shortstops are more valuable than great first baseman.