Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jon Niese

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Things have been awful quiet around the Yankees since the Aroldis Chapman signing, which both makes sense and is kind of annoying. The club was never going to spend big for a free agent bat, and trading top prospects for an impact pitcher was always unlikely, meaning there isn’t a whole lot going on at the moment. Tinker with the margins of the roster. That’s about it.

A small army of cheap veteran starters remain on the free agent market, and with the Yankees set to rely on young pitchers in two of the five rotation spots, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they swooped in to sign one before free agency. Among those still looking for a job is former Mets southpaw Jon Niese, who turned 30 back in October. He’s not the most exciting name out there, far from it, but is he a fit for the Yankees? Let’s give him a look.

Injury History

This is the best place to start, I think. Niese’s season came to an abrupt end on August 23rd last year, when he faced four batters in a spot start before being forced to exit with left knee pain. He had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus the next day. After the injury, Niese told reporters he’d been pitching through knee pain since June, and it was bad enough that he needed the knee drained and a few cortisone shots along the way.

Aside from last season’s knee injury — by all account Niese’s rehab is going fine, and given the typical rehab timetable of a meniscus repair, he should be ready to go by now — Niese has dealt with on and off physical problems over the years. No arm surgeries, but not stuff you can easily ignore either:

  • 2009: Missed two months with a torn right hamstring.
  • 2010: Missed six weeks with a strained right hamstring.
  • 2011: Missed a month with a right intercostal strain.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Missed nearly two months with a small rotator cuff tear. He only needed rest and rehab.
  • 2014: Missed two weeks with elbow inflammation, then another two weeks with a shoulder strain later in the season.
  • 2015: Healthy!

The hamstring woes were kinda fluky — he tore the hamstring running over to cover first base — and Niese has had no hammy problems since. The arm injuries in 2013 and 2014 are more concerning, even though they’re a few years in the past now. Niese returned from the rotator cuff tear in 2013 and was marvelous (3.00 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 66 innings), so that’s encouraging. His arm hasn’t given him any trouble since 2014. Some scary stuff in there. No doubt.

Recent Performance

The Mets traded Niese to the Pirates for Neil Walker last offseason, then the Pirates traded him back to the Mets for Antonio Bastardo at the trade deadline. All told, he made 20 starts and nine relief appearances in 2016, and pitched to a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 total innings. Yikes. HOWEVA, look at the breakdown:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

Remember all that stuff about pitching with knee pain since June and needing cortisone shots and all that? Guess when Niese made his 12th start. Yep. June. That 12th start was the end of a five-start stretch in which Niese allowed six runs total in 31 innings. He was great. Then, suddenly, he crashed and allowed 28 runs in his next six starts and 30.2 innings. Hmmm.

Now, we can’t say anything definitive here, but it sure seems to me pitching through knee pain — it was Niese’s left knee, his push-off knee — may have compromised Mr. Niese’s performance. Call me crazy. His home runs were up all year — everyone’s home runs were up in 2016 — and that’s a red flag. Otherwise those first dozen starts were typical Niese. A below average rate of strikeouts, but plenty of grounders and not a ton of walks. That’s Niese.

In 2015, his last healthy season, Niese managed a 4.13 ERA (4.41 FIP) with 14.7% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, 54.5% grounders, and 1.02 HR/9 in 176.2 innings. That’s not great by any means, but it is serviceable. You could stick that dude in the back of your rotation and not sweat too much. That’s the guy whatever team signs Niese will be hoping to get this coming season, when his knee is presumably healthy.

Present Stuff

Niese is a five-pitch pitcher who uses three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), a curveball, and a changeup. He tinkered with a slider a few years back, but it didn’t work, so he gave up on it. Niese has never been a hard-thrower — his average four-seamer velocity peaked at 91.8 mph back in 2011 — and these days his four-seamer and sinker sit right around 90 mph. Here’s his 2016 game-by-game average velocity chart, via Brooks Baseball:

jon-niese-velocity

That dip at the end there screams “ow ow ow my push-off knee hurts so much.” The Pirates moved Niese to the bullpen in July and his velocity never did spike. And even though his knee started bothering him in June, it never showed in velocity. If you’d have looked at that graph on August 1st, you wouldn’t have been able to tell Niese was nursing a knee injury or had changed roles. His velocity held steady.

There’s nothing too exciting about Niese. His curveball doesn’t buckle knees and hitters won’t be so far out in front of his changeup they’ll break their bat on their back. He is what he is. A generic back-end starter who relies on ground balls and won’t wow you with pure stuff. Here’s some video:

That knee injury and the fact Niese pitched through it for several weeks is pretty much the only reason I wrote him up as a possible free agent target. I saw it as something that could explain his poor overall performance, and sure enough, the numbers kinda fit the timeline. How exactly did the knee injury affect Niese though? There’s no dip in his velocity. Let’s look at this four-seamer and sinker location, via Baseball Savant:

jon-niese-fastball-heat-map

In his first dozen starts, Niese kept his fastballs down in the zone, which is what you’d expect from a guy who lives and dies by the ground ball. After that, ostensibly when his knee started barking, Niese was much more prone to leaving his fastball up in the zone. That right there can help explain why his performance declined so much. He was throwing more hittable pitches, and since he lacks premium velocity overall, hitters made him pay.

Contract Estimates

Niese did not appear on a single top 50 free agent list this offseason, not one, so we have no contract estimates. Generally speaking, reclamation project starters have been getting one-year deals in the $5M range over the last two or three years, and Niese fits there. The Mets declined his $10M option after the 2016 season, and I’m guessing they gauged the trade market to see if anyone wanted him at that price. When there was no interest, they cut him loose. One-year and $5M seems like a decent framework. Maybe he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

It ultimately depends on the price and health of his knee. It was a fairly routine procedure — Niese had the meniscus tear scoped like so many other athletes — and while you can never guarantee a return to full health, this is one of those surgeries with a high success rate. It’s not like taking on a dude coming off Tommy John surgery. If he’s healthy and the price is right, sure, sign him up as depth.

Keep in mind the Yankees have had interest in Niese in the past. They tried to get him from the Mets during the 2011 Winter Meetings, which was obviously a very long time ago. The Yankees liked the 25-year-old version of Niese back then. Do they like the 30-year-old version now? I’m guessing they like that he’s a lefty who gets ground balls, that he’s pitched in New York, and that he’s shown the versatility to start or relieve. (Niese was in the bullpen during the 2015 postseason.)

The question is, as always, whether Niese wants to try to rebuild his career in Yankee Stadium, which is something very few pitchers seem willing to do. The Marlins have been connected to Niese several times this winter and they might be a more preferable destination as an NL team in a big ballpark. I’m a fan of adding pitching depth. I’ve said that a million times. Healthy Niese might be the best pitcher available right now. If he’s open to coming to the Yankees, he’d be a fine low-cost pickup.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Brett Anderson

(Jamie Sabau/Getty)
(Jamie Sabau/Getty)

The offseason is not so young at this point — pitches and catchers report in fewer than five weeks! — and so far the Yankees haven’t done anything to improve their starting rotation. We haven’t even seen the token “innings guy on a minor league contract for Triple-A” signing yet. If the Yankees do make any changes to their rotation before Spring Training, chances are it’ll be a small signing, not a huge trade. That’s my feeling, anyway.

Among the remaining unsigned starters, and there are still quite a few of them, by far the most interesting to me is left-hander Brett Anderson, formerly of the Athletics, Rockies, and Dodgers. Injuries have been a problem over the years, there’s no doubt about that, but at the moment, every free agent is significantly flawed. Teams are sorting through those free agents and deciding which flaws they can live with. Does Anderson make sense for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

Injury History

Might as well start here since injuries define Anderson’s career. Last year he threw only 11.1 innings across three starts and one relief appearances mostly due to back trouble. Anderson hurt his back in Spring Training and needed surgery to repair a bulging disc. It wasn’t until mid-August that he was activated, and barely a week later he landed back on the disabled list with a blister. The blister kept him out until late-September.

Last year was the fourth time in the last five years Anderson was limited to fewer than 50 innings. It was the fifth time in the last six years he was unable to throw more than 85 innings. His list of injuries is quite long and quite significant:

  • 2009 (175.1 IP): Missed a little time with finger and biceps issues, but avoided the disabled list.
  • 2010 (112.1 IP): Separate instances of elbow inflammation and a forearm strain sidelined Anderson for three months total.
  • 2011 (83.1 IP): Elbow soreness ended his season in June. He had Tommy John surgery in July.
  • 2012 (35 IP): Returned from Tommy John surgery in August. An oblique strain ended his season in September.
  • 2013 (44.2 IP): Sidelined four months with an ankle sprain and a stress fracture in his foot.
  • 2014 (43.1 IP): A broken finger and a lower back strain cost him close to five months total.
  • 2015 (180.1 IP): Healthy! Except for calf cramping that caused him to miss a start in September.
  • 2016 (11.1 IP): Back surgery and a blister kept Anderson out the entire season, basically.

Yeesh. Little of everything there. Muscle pulls and ligament tears, broken bones and bulging discs, upper body and lower body. Based on that, Anderson has to be considered a complete lottery ticket. If he stays healthy in 2017, great! If not, well, that’s kinda what you expected going in. You hope to get lucky like the Dodgers did in 2015. Maybe half as lucky.

Recent Performance

Anderson threw only 11.1 innings last year and they were 11.1 terrible innings. Terrible as in 15 runs on 25 hits and four walks. Only five strikeouts too. On the bright side, a 50.0% ground ball rate! That’s pretty good. The rest? Awful.

Now, that said, I can’t put any stock in 11.1 innings, especially when the pitcher was coming off back surgery and missed a month with a blister right in the middle of those 11.1 innings. Anderson’s only meaningful sample of innings over the last five years is that 2015 season in Los Angeles. That’s it. Here’s what he did:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2015 180.1 3.69 3.94 15.5% 6.1% 66.3% 0.90 .320 .308
Career 685.2 3.86 3.70 17.5% 6.3% 58.2% 0.83 .329 .308

So after you smush all those little 40-something-inning seasons together to get Anderson’s career rates, it looks an awful lot like his 2015 performance. He’s not a big strikeout guy, never has been, yet he succeeds by limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, his 66.3% ground ball rate in 2015 was the third highest by a qualified starter since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Derek Lowe had a 67.0% grounder rate in both 2002 and 2006).

Point is, when Anderson has been healthy, he’s been pretty effective, last year notwithstanding. Back during his prospect days, Anderson always stood out for his pitching acumen and ability to locate, not his sheer stuff. Presumably his pitchability hasn’t vanished with the injuries. It’s not like Anderson is a guy who needs to throw the ball by hitters to be successful.

Current Stuff

Because he missed so much time last year — Anderson threw 118 total pitches last year (118!) — and was either coming off injury (back surgery) or injured at the time (blister) when he was on the mound, I’m not sure 2016 PitchFX data tells us anything useful about Anderson’s current stuff. He was physically compromised.

When he’s been on the mound over the years, Anderson has consistently thrown five pitches regularly. He uses both a four-seam fastball and a sinker, plus both a curveball and a slider in addition to his changeup. Anderson’s velocity has dipped since his debut in 2009, but that’s to be expected. It would happen to anyone, not just someone who’s dealt with a ton of injuries. From Brooks Baseball:

brett-anderson-velocity

It would be a major red flag if Anderson’s velocity was down considerably last year, into the mid-80s or something. Instead, the four-seamer and sinker averaged 91.9 mph and 92.3 mph, respectively, in those 11.1 innings in 2016. They topped out at 95.6 mph and 95.2 mph as well, so the vee-low is there. That indicates the injuries haven’t damaged his arm beyond the point of no return, you know?

Because Anderson is a ground ball pitcher and not a strikeout pitcher — he’s made 115 career starts and only 12 times did he strike out more than seven batters (never more than ten) — let’s examine the ground ball rate of his individual pitches over the last two years. This tells us what healthy Anderson is capable of doing, and what he did in his most recent season, albeit in a miniscule sample size.

Four-Seam Sinker Curveball Slider Changeup
2015 54.5% 76.4% 58.8% 68.2% 59.7%
2016 50.0% 55.6% 37.5% 57.1% 40.0%
MLB AVG 37.9% 49.5% 48.7% 43.9% 47.8%

Two years ago, during his healthy season, Anderson got an above-average number of ground balls with all five pitches. That’s how you post the third highest ground ball rate by any starter in the 15 years batted ball data has been recorded. Last year, even with a bad back and a blister, Anderson got an above-average number of grounders with three of his five pitches. Yay?

The 2016 data doesn’t help us much because again, we’re talking about 118 total pitches, and I can’t imagine scouting reports would be all that helpful either. How much can information can you take from 118 pitches spread across four appearances? There’s very little video of Anderson in action in 2016 — MLB.com has three videos of Anderson from last year, and two are of him getting hurt — so here’s a clip of good, healthy Anderson from 2015:

That version of Anderson looks pretty good! Will that guy still exist in 2017, two years and one back surgery later? Damned if I know. That’s the hope though.

Contract Estimates

Things have been extremely quiet for Anderson this winter. So quiet there’s basically nothing in his MLB Trade Rumors archive. He was listed as a possible bounceback candidate in a December post, and the post before that is an injury update from September. No hard rumors at all. Anderson hasn’t been connected to any team so far this offseason.

Even though he was pretty good in 2015 and this free agent class is thin, Anderson was not included in either MLBTR’s or FanGraphs’ top 50 free agents. The only contract estimate we have comes from Jim Bowden (subs. req’d), who pegs Anderson for a one-year deal worth $5M. I had one year and $4M in my silly offseason plan, for what’s it worth.

One year and $5M or so seems to be the going rate for reclamation project starting pitchers. Derek Holland signed for $6M earlier this winter. Last offseason Matt Latos ($3M), Doug Fister ($7M), Kyle Kendrick ($5.5M), and Aaron Harang ($5M) all signed for similar amounts. Two years ago the Dodgers spent big to sign Anderson (one year and $10M) and it worked out well. Then he accepted the $15.8M qualifying offer and it was a waste of money.

Given the decided lack of interest and his ugly medical history, it’s difficult to see Anderson getting anything more than one year and $5M or so. Maybe a desperate team stretches their budget and gives him $7M, but I don’t see it. A low base salary short-term deal with incentives based on innings and/or starts seems most likely, does it not?

Does He Fit The Yankees?

My vote is yes, and for a few reasons. One, Anderson won’t cost much money. He shouldn’t, anyway. If he holds out for big bucks, then walk away and wish him luck. Two, Anderson is still only 28 (29 in February). This isn’t some 36-year-old trying to hang on. Anderson’s still on the right side of 30 and theoretically offers more upside than the typical reclamation types you find in free agency. Three, Anderson fits Yankee Stadium well as a southpaw who get ground balls.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty)

And four, and perhaps most importantly, the Yankees have the pitching depth to absorb an injury should Anderson get hurt again. They have a lot of young pitchers currently slated to compete for the fourth and fifth rotation spots, including Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams will be in Triple-A as well, ditto Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera. The arms are there to cover for an injury.

Anderson is very unique as a reclamation project given his age and the way he ostensibly fits Yankee Stadium. You needn’t look back too far to see the last time he was successful too. It was 2015, one season ago. He’d be a very nice (and affordable) upside play for the 2017 Yankees, a team banking on the upside of their young kids to have any shot at contention (and not looking to spend big to make additions).

It’s important to note the Yankees have tried to acquire Anderson several times in the past, so they seem to like him. They were reportedly one of the runners-up two offseason ago, when he first signed with the Dodgers. The Yankees also tried to trade for Anderson during the 2013 Winter Meetings and at the 2014 trade deadline. Perhaps their feelings have changed over the years, but once upon a time, there was legitimate and persistent interest.

The real question is, as always, whether Anderson wants to join the Yankees. What is his goal this season? To stay healthy and show he can be effective. At this point he can’t do much more than cross his fingers and hope he stays healthy. Pitch effectively though? Performance is something that can be affected by outside factors, such as a hitter friendly ballpark in a division with three other hitter friendly ballparks in the DH league, like Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees could always use another arm just to help lighten the load a bit on the kids. Anderson offers a smidgen of upside, unlike, say, Doug Fister or Jorge De La Rosa, and even if he gets hurt again, the Yankees would be right back where they started minus a relatively small amount of cash. The potential reward is not sky high, I don’t think Anderson is an ace when healthy or anything like that, but there’s a chance for him to be league average or slightly above. If he’s open to pitching in New York, the Yankees would be wise to scoop him up.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jason Hammel

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees went into this offseason looking for “pitching, pitching, pitching,” and so far they’ve (re-)signed Aroldis Chapman. And that’s it. Unless you count claiming Joe Mantiply off waivers and signing Jason Gurka to a minor league deal. The rotation has been untouched and Chapman has been the only bullpen upgrade.

Of course, this free agent class was very thin on pitching, so it’s not like the Yankees have sat idle while a bunch of potential aces came off the board. Rich Hill, who was in independent ball 18 months ago, was the top starter on the market. Ivan Nova was arguably the second best option. Yeah. This was not a good offseason to need pitching, that’s for sure. Free agency is thin and trade prices are sky high.

The best free agent starter still on the board right now is veteran righty Jason Hammel, who spent the last two years with the Cubs and became a free agent when the team declined his $12M option. They had to pay him a $2M buyout, so it was essentially a $10M decision. The Cubs reportedly left it up to Hammel, and decided to test the market. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Over the last three seasons the 34-year-old Hammel has been a boringly reliable middle of the rotation pitcher. He’s threw no more than 176.1 innings and no fewer than 166.2 innings in each of those three seasons, and during that time he has a 3.68 ERA (4.02 FIP). Like I said, boringly reliable.

The 2016 season was Hammel’s worst in seven years in terms of strikeout (20.8%), walk (7.7%), and home run (1.35 HR/9) rates. Homers were up around the league and Hammel wasn’t too far off from his career 1.13 HR/9, so maybe we can give him a mulligan there. Here are the last three years:

jason-hammel-rates

Not great, not awful, no alarming spikes. Hammel’s strikeout and walk numbers were indeed his worst in several years last season, but they weren’t that far off from his 2014-15 numbers either. Consistency is boring.

One aspect of Hammel’s performance that can not be ignored is his tendency to fade in the second half. It’s happened three years in a row now. Last season Hammel failed to complete four innings in three of his final seven starts, and he allowed 35 runs in his final 32.1 innings of the season. Egads. Look at this:

jason-hammel-era

Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend. Hammel is not a 200-inning workhorse. He’s essentially a 170-inning pitcher who is most effective during the first 140 innings. Things get dicey after that. As long as his next employer is aware of that and acts accordingly — use off-days to skip a start now and then, things like that — it’s not a huge problem.

Current Stuff

Hammel has gone through several transformations since his time with the Devils Rays way back when. He’s gone from four-seamer/curveball pitcher to sinker/slider pitcher to four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher. Hammel still throws the curveball now and then, and every once in a while he’ll toss a changeup, but for the most part he’s a three-pitch pitcher these days. The 2016 numbers:

  • Four-seamer: 9.1% whiffs and 29.2% grounders (MLB averages: 6.9% and 37.9%)
  • Sinker: 2.8% whiffs and 58.8% grounders (MLB averages: 5.4% and 49.5%)
  • Slider: 17.5% whiffs and 42.2% grounders (MLB averages: 15.2% and 43.9%)

Hammel does not have a dominant pitch. He was able to get a good amount of ground balls with his sinker a year ago, and the slider was probably his best pitch overall considering it was basically average at getting both swings and misses and grounders. Because his changeup is close to a non-factor, lefties (.344 wOBA) had more success against Hammel than righties (.292 wOBA) last year. Here’s some video:

Like I said earlier, boringly reliable. Hammel won’t be appointment television. He’s not very exciting, but he is generally effective.

Injury History

The Cubs did not carry Hammel on their postseason roster — I’m not sure he would have been on the playoff roster anyway given Chicago’s other options — because elbow tightness ended his season in late-September. He also missed most of August with forearm tendinitis. That’s not good. Forearm trouble is a common precursor to elbow trouble. By all accounts though, Hammel’s elbow is structurally sound and he’ll be ready in time for Spring Training.

The recent forearm and elbow woes are the first time Hammel has had arm trouble in his big league career. He missed a month with a groin strain back in 2010 (who cares) and about two months total following right knee surgery in 2012. Hammel had surgery to repair cartilage damage, returned in six weeks, then felt renewed soreness and missed another two weeks. The knee has been problem free ever since.

Injuries have not been a problem throughout Hammel’s career. And it means basically nothing. Hammel finished the season hurt, with an arm problem no less, and it can be considered a recurring injury. He had forearm trouble in August and then elbow trouble in September. That’s scary and certainly a reason he remains unsigned in January. Forget that he’s been healthy most of his career. He finished the year hurt and that’s the most recent information.

Contract Estimates

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

Once Jeremy Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer, Hammel was no worse than the third best starter on the free agent market. He seemed poised to cash in big as a free agent, and he still might, but so far things have been quiet. Here are some contract estimates:

It sure seems like Hammel won’t be getting a three-year contract this offseason. I’m guessing he’d jump all over a three-year offer at this point. Recent reports indicate Hammel has received nothing more than one-years contract offers this winter, which is telling. Teams must be afraid of that elbow.

Hammel lost $10M when the Cubs declined his option. He and his agent — Hammel changed representatives earlier this winter because his market was not developing — are probably looking to at least recoup that $10M, so does that mean the floor is a one-year deal worth $10M? Possibly. I’m taking a shot in the dark here.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a veteran starting pitcher who has been pretty good in recent years and won’t cost an arm and a leg. There is no such thing as too much pitching depth. The Yankees will appreciate having an extra veteran starter around whenever the kids inevitably hit a bump in the road all at once. You know it’s coming.

That yes comes with several caveats though. For starters, there’s the whole elbow thing. That’s kind of a big deal. Secondly, home runs have always been an issue for Hammel and Yankee Stadium will only exacerbate that. And third, Hammel won’t be playing in front of the Cubs’ historically great defense anymore. The Yankees have a solid team defense, much better than in previous years, but it’s not on par with Chicago’s.

Last year Hammel had a 3.83 ERA (4.48 FIP) with the Cubs. Again: boringly reliable. Move him to Yankee Stadium (and the other hitter friendly AL East parks) in the DH league and it might be a 4.50 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 2017. That kinda stinks, doesn’t it? I’m just spitballing though. Who knows what’ll happen next year. Point is, there are several reasons to believe Hammel’s performance is about to take a turn for the worst.

Still, it’s not like Hammel would be blocking a young pitcher. This isn’t like signing Mike Napoli and sending Greg Bird to Triple-A. Signing Hammel to the cheap one-year contract he appears destined to sign would be a worthwhile move for the pitching needy Yankees, even with the elbow red flags. (It ain’t my money!) It’s just a question of whether Hammel is willing to pitch in such a hitter friendly park. Yankee Stadium isn’t a good place to rebuild value.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luis Valbuena

Bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)
The bat flips are a plus. (Al Bello/Getty)

Now that we’re in January, the bargain-hunting period of the offseason has begun. Teams use these last few weeks before Spring Training to round out their rosters, and lots of free agents, especially the second and third tier guys, start to get antsy the longer they remain unemployed. That can lead to some nice value signings, the kind of signings that can be the difference in a division or wildcard race.

The Yankees are fairly well set on the position player side at the moment. A Brett Gardner trade or especially a Chase Headley trade would throw a wrench into things, but since those two are still Yankees, it’s not a problem at the moment. The only realistic spot to look for an upgrade is the bench, and even then New York has several young players who could fill out the roster, such as Rob Refsnyder.

If the Yankees are willing to go out into free agency to add another bench or platoon player, a possible target is former Astros third baseman Luis Valbuena, who remains unsigned even though the free agent infield market was so weak this winter. Justin Turner and Neil Walker were fair and away the best available non-first base infielders and both returned to their former teams. Valbuena is still out there. Does he make sense for the Yankees? Let’s break it down.

Offensive Performance

Valbuena, who turned 31 in November, finally settled in as a starting player the last three years after bouncing around earlier in his career. From 2014-16, his three seasons as a starter, he’s hit .243/.334/.442 (115 wRC+) with a 21.7% strikeout rate and an 11.5% walk rate. He’s averaged 27 doubles and 22 homers per 150 games during those three seasons.

Before a hamstring injury ended his season in July, Valbuena managed a .260/.357/.459 (123 wRC+) batting line with 13 homers in 90 games. His strikeout (23.7%) and walk (12.9%) rates were right where they normally sit. Most importantly, Valbuena’s quality of contact has remained steady. No spike in ground balls or increase in soft contact. Nothing like that. Via FanGraphs:

luis-valbuena-contact

Valbuena is, quite simply, a left-handed pull hitter who hits the ball in the air quite often. His 46.7% pull rate is 23rd highest among the 235 players to bat at least 1,000 times over the last three seasons, on par with guys like Brandon Moss (47.0%) and David Ortiz (46.2%). Also, his 33.6% ground ball rate is eighth lowest among those 235 batters. Dude hits lots of fly balls to right field.

I needn’t tell you what happens when a left-handed hitter pulls the ball in the air at Yankee Stadium. We’ve seen some players change their approach in an effort to take advantage of the short porch over the years, most notably Mark Teixeira, but Valbuena doesn’t have to change anything. His natural swing produces fly balls to right field. Here are his last two seasons with the Astros, via Baseball Savant:

luis-valbuena-spray-chart

There are some opposite field dingers in there and that’s cool, but yeah, it seems Valbuena and the short porch would get along well. He’s basically unplayable against southpaws — Valbuena has hit .253/.344/.473 (126 wRC+) against righties and .206/.299/.335 (79 wRC+) against lefties the last three years — but a left-handed platoon player with pull power and lots of walks is a nice little role player.

Baserunning is part of offense too, and it’s important to note Valbuena is a net negative on the basepaths. He doesn’t steal bases (4-for-11 in attempts since 2013) and over the last three years, he’s taken the extra base just 30.5% of the time. That’s going first-to-third on a single, things like that. The league average is right around 40%. So, when it comes to creating runs, Valbuena does it by drawing walks and pulling the ball in the air against righties. That’s it.

Defensive Performance

Back in the day, Valbuena broke into the big leagues as a shortstop with the Mariners. He then moved to second base and later third base, where he’s played almost exclusively since 2012. Valbuena hasn’t played short since 2011 and he’s played only 210 innings at second since 2012. The Astros had him dabble at first base these last two seasons, but not much (277 innings).

The various defensive stats agree Valbuena is not a good defensive third baseman. Some say he’s close to average, others say he’s far below that. Here are his last three defensive seasons at the hot corner:

Innings UZR DRS FRAA Total Zone
2014 971 -4.9 -10 -12.3 -3
2015 835 -9.3 -1 -4.4 1
2016 683 -0.8 -1 +6.2 -5
Total 2,489 -15.0 -12 -10.5 -7

Yeah, not great. Valbuena can stand over at third base and fake it at first, maybe even second in an emergency, and that’s about it. He’ll cost his team runs in the field. So, if he stops hitting homers and drawing walks, there’s nothing to salvage Valbuena as a player. He can’t contribute in any other way.

Injury History

As I mentioned earlier, a hamstring injury ended Valbuena’s season in July last year. He suffered the injury running out a ground ball against the Yankees:

The injury was originally diagnosed as a strain, and during his rehab a few weeks later, Valbuena suffered a setback that required season-ending surgery to repair his hamstring tendon. I can’t find any recent updates, but reports at the time of the surgery indicate he’s expected to be 100% healthy well before Spring Training.

Aside from the hamstring, Valbuena has had no serious injuries in his career. He missed a month with a right oblique strain in 2013 and that’s it. The oblique and hamstring are his only two disabled list stints. The fact Valbuena is coming off surgery right now is a concern, it has to be, but injuries haven’t been a chronic problem. The guy pulled him hamstring, pushed his rehab too hard, and suffered a setback. C’est la vie.

Contract Estimates

The Astros did not tender Valbuena the qualifying offer — the hamstring injury put an end to that, I think maybe they would have given him the qualify offer had he stayed healthy — so he’s not tied to draft pick compensation. He’s a true free agent with no strings attached. Anyway, here are some contract estimates:

Less than I expected! Even with the injury, I feel like plenty of teams could use Valbuena at $7M a year for two years. Of course, third base is loaded around the league at the moment, so the demand might not be there. Based on my quick glance, the Braves and Padres are the only teams that could offer Valbuena their full-time third base gig at the moment. Maybe the Twins too if they commit to moving Miguel Sano to DH.

The hamstring injury and the lack of available third base jobs are the reasons Valbuena remains unsigned, and they could cause him to settle for a smaller than expected contract. I wonder if Valbuena will end up taking a one-year deal worth $6M or $7M, something in that neighborhood. That’s Mitch Moreland (one-year, $5.5M), Welington Castillo (one-year, $6M), and Jon Jay (one-year, $8M) territory. Remember, David Freese is a solid third baseman himself, and it wasn’t until mid-March that he signed a one-year deal worth $3M last offseason.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

The Yankees were said to be in “ongoing” talks with Valbuena during the Winter Meetings last month, and, at the time, it seemed like they were talking to him as a backup plan in case a Headley trade went down that week. His market has been very quiet since then. The last hard Valbuena rumor at MLBTR involved some interest from the Rays on December 17th. Prior to that it was the Yankees at the Winter Meetings. Yeah.

Okay, so anyway, as it stands, the position player portion of New York’s projected 2017 roster looks something like this:

Catcher: Gary Sanchez
First Base: Greg Bird or Tyler Austin
Second Base: Starlin Castro
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Headley
Outfield: Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Judge
Designated Hitter: Matt Holliday
Bench: Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes, Aaron Hicks, Austin or Refsnyder

There’s some wiggle room there — Judge could strike out his way to Triple-A during Grapefruit League play, for example — but that seems to be it. Barring a Headley trade, which seems unlikely, Valbuena would fill that “Austin or Refsnyder” spot on the bench. I suppose he could replace Torreyes, which would mean Castro serves as the backup shortstop, but the Yankees didn’t like that idea last year.

Is Valbuena a better player than Austin or Refsnyder right now? Almost certainly. In a vacuum, signing him to fill that roster spot makes the Yankees a better team. This isn’t a vacuum though. Filling the Austin/Refsnyder spot with Valbuena comes with some consequences, namely:

  1. No fifth outfielder. Austin and Refsnyder have outfield experience, mostly right field but also left, so they’re options out there. Valbuena is not. Hicks would be the lone reserve outfielder.
  2. No platoon bat for Bird. Austin or Refsnyder, whoever gets that bench spot, will presumably platoon with Bird at first base, at least against really tough lefties. The Chris Sales and David Prices of the world. Valbuena can’t do that as a lefty with platoon issues.

Maybe these are minor considerations. Torreyes has played a tiny little bit of outfield in his career and the Yankees might feel comfortable relying on him as the fifth outfielder since that guy usually only plays the outfield in emergencies anyway. And Bird might not need a platoon partner. The Yankees could force feed him at-bats against southpaws to help him develop.

The Yankees supposedly need to shed salary before making any more additions, so this might all be moot. I like the idea of adding Valbuena on a cheap one-year contract to bolster the bench — he could see time at both corner infield spots as well as DH — but who knows if he’ll actually have to settle for a cheap one-year contract. And if he does, would he be willing to be a bench player with the Yankees? The short porch is nice, but other clubs could offer more playing time.

There are some drawbacks to signing Valbuena as well, namely the imperfect roster construction. The Yankees are probably eager to see what Austin can do with more playing time, for example, and Valbuena would cut into that. It’s hard not to get excited about Austin’s opposite field power at Yankee Stadium. At this stage of the rebuild transition, seeing what a young player can do should take priority over adding a win or maybe two to the bench with someone like Valbuena, shouldn’t it?

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Left-Handed Relievers

noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)
noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)

The Yankees came into the offseason seemingly determined to land a big money closer, and they did exactly that two weeks ago, when they inked Aroldis Chapman to a five-year contract. Chapman joins Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard in the bullpen, probably Adam Warren too. The remaining bullpen spots are up for grabs with a whole bunch of young pitchers in the running.

Reports indicate the Yankees are still looking to add bullpen help — well, every team is looking for bullpen help, but you know what I mean — particularly a left-hander. They were in touch with Brett Cecil before he signed with the Cardinals, and they had interest in Mike Dunn before he signed with the Rockies. Here is New York’s lefty reliever depth chart at the moment:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Tommy Layne
  3. Chasen Shreve
  4. Richard Bleier
  5. Dietrich Enns

Chapman is the closer and won’t be used in left-on-left matchup situations in the middle innings. Right now Layne is that guy, and while he did nice work for the Yankees this past season, I’m not sure he’s someone they could count on going forward. The other three guys aren’t all that reliable either. They might prove to be next summer, but right now, I can’t imagine anyone wants to go into the season with one of those three as the top middle innings southpaw.

The current free agent class is not very good, especially now that most of the top players are off the board, but it does offer a few quality left-handed bullpen options. They won’t come cheap — Cecil got four years and Dunn got three years, so yikes — which might keep the Yankees out of the market all together. Still though, if a nice opportunity presents itself, the Yankees could pounce. Let’s review the available options.

Jerry Blevins

Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)
Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)

2016 Performance: Blevins, 33, spent the 2016 season with the Mets and pitched to a 2.79 ERA (3.05 FIP) in 42 innings spread across 73 innings, which tells you how he was used. He held left-handed hitters to a .250/.313/.324 (.283 wOBA) batting line against with 31.0% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, and 49.3% grounders. Blevins was actually much more effective against righties (.245 wOBA), but that was a big outlier compared to the rest of his career (.312 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As with most relievers, Blevins is a two-pitch pitcher who relies on his fastball and breaking ball, in this case a curve. He has thrown a changeup on occasion in the past, but it’s not a big part of his arsenal. Here’s the PitchFX data from his past season. This numbers are against lefties only since we’re looking at matchup guys:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 63.0% 89.9 4.2% 59.5%
Curveball 35.7% 71.3 25.6% 32.0%

The fastball swing-and-miss rate is below-average (MLB AVG: 6.9%) while the curveball swing-and-miss rate is comfortably above-average (MLB AVG: 11.1%). Blevins got a ton of grounders with his fastball this year (MLB AVG: 37.9%), always has, while his curve is the opposite. It has a lower than average ground ball rate (MLB AVG: 48.7%) and has throughout his career.

The Skinny: There are very few consistently reliable matchup left-handers in baseball and Blevins is one of them. Since reaching the show for good in 2012, he’s held lefty batters to a sub-.285 wOBA four times in five years. Despite his success this year, Blevins isn’t effective against righties, and there’s nothing to indicate this year’s success was anything more than sample size noise (he faced only 65 righties). If the Yankees want a pure specialist, Blevins is one of the best out there.

J.P. Howell

2016 Performance: Last offseason Howell exercised a $6.25M player option in his contract to remain with the Dodgers. The 33-year-old had a 4.09 ERA (3.50 FIP) in 50.2 innings and 64 appearances overall, and lefties roughed him up pretty good too: .299/.340/.412 (.328 wOBA) with 21.4% strikeouts, 3.9% walks, and 66.7% grounders. Righties had success against Howell this year as well (.304 wOBA). Just a year ago he held lefties to a .237 wOBA, however.

2016 Stuff: Howell is another two-pitch reliever. He’s a sinker/curveball guy with kind of a funky delivery that adds some deception. Here’s how Howell’s stuff played against lefties in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 50.6% 85.9 4.7% 73.7%
Curveball 49.2% 79.1 11.7% 58.8%

Howell is a ground ball guy, not a bat-misser. Ground balls are fine, but when the guy’s primary job is to get out lefties, you’d like him to be able to do it without relying on his defense so much. A ground ball doesn’t help much when there is a runner on third with less than two outs. Howell is the not the type of pitcher who can come in and get you that strikeout.

The Skinny: Howell fell so far out of favor with the Dodgers this year that he wasn’t even on their postseason roster. Manager Dave Roberts went with rookie Grant Dayton and veteran Luis Avilan as his two lefty relievers in October. Howell is a finesse pitcher with no track record of big strikeout numbers, so there’s no reason to expect that going forward. Want him to get a lefty out? Chances are he’ll need his defense to make a play behind him.

Boone Logan

2016 Performance: Shoulder inflammation sidelined the 32-year-old Logan for two weeks at the end of May, and around that, he had a 3.69 ERA (3.23 FIP) in 46.1 innings and 66 appearances. He absolutely dominated lefties. They hit .139/.222/.255 (.215 wOBA) against him with 33.6% strikeouts, 7.6% walks, and 60.6% grounders. Nearly 70% of the lefties Logan faced this summer either struck out or hit the ball on the ground. Righties has more success against him, naturally (.305 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As I’m sure you remember from his time with the Yankees, Logan is a four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher with good velocity and a breaking ball that, when thrown right, is allergic to bats. Here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-Seam 31.7% 93.9 8.9% 42.9%
Sinker 12.4% 93.9 3.2% 70.6%
Slider 55.5% 84.2 27.8% 66.7%

Logan throws a ton of sliders, always has and always will. That pitch is the reason he’s in the big leagues. The slider gets a ton of swings and misses and a ton of grounders. The four-seamer gets an above-average amount of both too. Now that Dunn and Cecil are off the board, Logan is the only true power lefty remaining in free agency. He can throw the ball by hitters, which sure is a nice skill to have.

The Skinny: Logan never dominated lefties as thoroughly as he did this year. A season ago he held them to a .222/.349/.254 (.286 wOBA) batting line, which is nothing to write home about. His 2016 performance was a great big outlier compared to the rest of his career. That said, Logan has been generally serviceable against left-handed batters in his career, and his slider is probably the single best pitch among current free agent lefties.

Javier Lopez

Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

2016 Performance: Lopez, the stalwart southpaw who was a key part of all those championship bullpens with the Giants, had a 4.05 ERA (5.40 FIP) at age 39 in 2016. He threw 26.2 innings across 68 appearances (lol), and lefties hit .208/.318/.316 (.289 wOBA) against him with 66.2% grounders and the same number of walks as strikeouts (11.2%). Righties absolutely clobbered Lopez this past season (.413 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Lopez is a classic left-on-left matchup guy with little velocity, a sweepy breaking ball, and a funky sidearm delivery. The stereotypical LOOGY. PitchFX credits Lopez with both a slider and a curveball even though they’re the same pitch. He just varies the shape of his breaking ball. Anyway, here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 72.8% 85.0 6.2% 76.9%
Slider 21.3% 78.5 6.7% 50.0%
Curveball 5.4% 72.4 15.8% 0.0%

Well, the good news is Lopez is able to get ground balls with two pitches. Swings and misses though? It’s not happening. The curve, which is just a variation of his slider, got a good amount of whiffs, though he didn’t throw it all that much. Like Howell, Lopez is a guy who is going to put his defense to work to get outs.

The Skinny: Guys like Lopez scare the crap out of me. I know he spent all those years as a high-leverage matchup guy on championship teams, but, at this point of his career, Lopez is pushing 40 with no way to miss bats, even against lefties. The Giants had a miserable bullpen this past season and they’re walking away from a guy who was a key part of their bullpen through the title years. That’s kinda telling.

Travis Wood

2016 Performance: Unlike the other guys in this post, Wood has had success as a starter in his career. He made nine starts for the Cubs as recently as 2015 before moving to the bullpen full-time. This past season the 29-year-old had a 2.95 ERA (4.54 FIP) in 61 innings and 77 appearances. Wood was excellent against lefties, holding them to a .128/.208/.239 (.203 wOBA) batting line with 19.2% strikeouts, 9.2% walks, and 38.4% grounders. (And a .143 BABIP.) Righties hit him pretty hard though (.362 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Even in relief, Wood used three pitches against lefties this summer. He attacked them with two fastballs (four-seamer and cutter) and a breaking ball (slider). And every once in a while he spun a curveball, but not often. Here’s how his stuff played against same-side hitters in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-seam 58.3% 91.5 9.8% 26.4%
Cutter 23.2% 87.7 6.2% 55.6%
Slider 13.7% 82.7 14.3% 53.3%

Whereas Logan has one excellent pitch in his slider, Wood has three good pitches but no truly dominant offering. I find it interesting Wood attacks lefties primarily with a four-seamer and cutter and not his slider. Does he front door the cutter? Or aim it at the outside corner and let it cut off the plate? Intrigue!

The Skinny: The free agent pitching market is so thin right now that I wonder if a team will look to sign Wood as a starter. He opened the 2015 season in the Cubs rotation and made at least 26 starts each year from 2012-14, so he has a lot of experience in that role. Either way, I don’t buy him being a true talent .203 wOBA pitcher against lefties, not with those strikeout and ground ball numbers, and especially without Chicago’s defense behind him. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad pitcher. I just don’t think Wood is really as good as he was in 2016.

* * *

To me, Blevins and Logan and Wood are at the head of the class here. Howell and especially Lopez are players I wouldn’t consider on anything more than a minor league deal. There are an awful lot of red flags with those two. Blevins is reliable, Logan brings that nasty slider, and Wood might have a chance to be something more than a pure left-on-left matchup guy.

As always, it’s going to come down to cost. Bullpen help is not cheap these days. Cecil signed for four years and $7.625M annually. Dunn received $6.33M per year across three years. Remember when the Yankees gave Matt Thornton two years and $7M total and it seemed kinda crazy? Those days are long gone. Decent middle relief help will cost you $6M a year or more. The Yankees might not be willing to commit that much to a lefty reliever, especially with no true shutdown guy available.

Scouting the Trade Market: Nate Jones

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Given their Winter Meetings activity, the White Sox are clearly a rebuilding team right now. They traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, and reports indicate Jose Quintana is on the block too. The Astros are said to have shown the most interest in him, and, understandably, the ChiSox have asked for basically all their top prospects. I don’t blame them. Quintana’s awesome.

The White Sox do have other veterans to trade as well, including former Yankee David Robertson. My guess is the teams that lose out on Kenley Jansen will turn their attention to Robertson. It’s another ChiSox reliever that interests me though: hard-throwing righty Nate Jones. The Yankees already have a pretty great closer-setup man tandem, but there’s no such thing as too many quality relievers. Let’s give Jones a look.

Recent Performance

Jones, who turns 31 in January, is like so many other relievers these days in that he’s a failed starter. The White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, and after a few years as a middling minor league starter, they moved him to the bullpen and he dominated almost immediately. Jones has spent parts of five seasons in the show now. His numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2016 70.2 2.29 2.93 29.2% 5.5% 45.9% 0.89 .211 .276
Career 239.1 3.16 3.11 27.0% 8.5% 47.1% 0.79 .286 .278

Jones was excellent this year. He’s been good his entire career, really, but this year he took it to another level. Not coincidentally, he was healthy this season, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Jones has always missed bats and gotten a good number of grounders, and this season he cut his walk rate. (He walked 15 in those 70.2 innings and three of the 15 were in intentional.)

This season Jones did have a pretty significant platoon split, though it’s not like lefties smacked him around the yard. They hit .198/.257/.410 against him. It’s worth noting he faced 109 lefties and gave up five homers this summer. It was two homers against 165 righty batters. Jones has always been more home run prone against lefties (career 1.22 HR/9) than righties (0.50 HR/9), which could be a problem at Yankee Stadium.

Generally speaking though, Jones was very good this past season and he’s been comfortably above-average his entire career. This is not some run of the mill middle reliever. Jones is a bonafide power reliever capable of pitching high-leverage situations.

Present Stuff

Like most relievers, Jones is a two-pitch pitcher. He’s a sinker/slider pitcher who has, at times, thrown a changeup and a curveball. Very rarely though. Jones threw seven changeups and four curveballs this past season. Total. So yeah, two-pitch pitcher. To the numbers (MLB averages in parenthesis):

% Thrown Avg. Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 62.8% 97.4 (91.3) 8.7% (5.4%) 42.5% (49.5%)
Slider 36.0% 88.8 (84.3) 27.0% (15.2%) 56.1% (43.9%)

Those are 2016 numbers, which most closely reflect who Jones is at this point in time. Right away, the velocity jumps out at you. Averaging north of 97 mph with a sinker is no joke. Same with a slider that averaged close to 89 mph. Jones got the sinker as high as 100.2 mph and the slider as high as 93.2 mph in 2016. That is pretty crazy.

Weirdly, that high-octane sinker doesn’t generate many grounders. Jones does get a good amount of swings and misses with the sinker, but not grounders. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s not like Jones pitched poorly this year — just unusual. Maybe it’s more of a true four-seam fastball that had just enough movement to trick PitchFX into thinking it’s a sinker? Video is scarce — unfortunately no one made a highlight video of a relatively unheralded setup reliever — but let’s look at some anyway:

Okay, that’s a sinker, not a four-seamer. You can clearly see the pitch run away from the left-handed batter. I’m not quite sure why Jones didn’t get many grounders with his sinker this season — he had a 28.6% grounder rate with the sinker last year, so it was even worse — but it happened. It’s not a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned because Jones was so good anyway, just a little weirdness. (Here’s video of his slider, if you’re interested.)

Injury History

Like so many other hard-throwing relievers these days, Jones has had some arm problems in his career. Nowadays it seems the guys who haven’t had an arm injury are the outliers. Anyway, here is Jones’ injury history:

  • 2010: Missed about two weeks in May with shoulder tendinitis while in Double-A.
  • 2014: Landed on the disabled list three games into the season with hip problem. He had relatively minor back surgery in early-May to shave down a bone that was causing nerve irritation and the hip issue.
  • 2014: Blew out his elbow in mid-July and needed Tommy John surgery. He was working his way back from the back procedure when the ligament snapped.

The good news: Tommy John surgery is the only serious arm issue. Jones’ shoulder has been fine since that little two-week stint on the minor league disabled list nearly seven years ago. Also, the back surgery wasn’t a structural issue, like a herniated disc. It was an arthroscopic procedure and Jones was throwing less than six weeks later. He wasn’t far away from rejoining the White Sox when the elbow gave out.

Now, that said, Jones is a guy with a herky jerky delivery who needed elbow reconstruction not too long ago. That’s a red flag, no doubt. Every single reliever is a risk these days. They all seem to get hurt. Jones appears to be in the clear at this point — his stuff and performance have bounced back well following Tommy John surgery — but he is slightly more risky than most relievers because his elbow was rebuilt less than three calendar years ago.

Contract Status

Interestingly enough, the White Sox signed Jones to a long-term extension while he was rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery. You don’t see that often. A team signing a player long-term as he’s rehabbing from major surgery. The ChiSox figured it was worth the risk, and I’m sure Jones appreciated the long-term security. Here’s the remainder of the contract:

  • 2017: $1.9M
  • 2018: $3.95M
  • 2019: Club option at league minimum ($555,000 per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement)
  • 2020: $3.75M club option
  • 2021: $4.25M club option

The contract also includes all sorts of escalators and bonuses. If Jones doesn’t need another elbow surgery by the end of the 2018 season, the contract options jump to $4.65M in 2019 and $5.15M in 2020, and the 2021 club option becomes a $6M mutual option. The ChiSox built in some protection in case the ligament gives out again. Jones can earn another $5.25M through bonuses based on games finished totals that, realistically, no pitcher could reach as a setup man. We’re talking 30+ games finished a year. He’d have to become a closer to trigger those.

So, all told, Jones can max the contract out at $26.9M over the five years if he stays healthy, becomes a closer, and neither side declines the mutual option. If the Yankees were to acquire Jones and use him as a setup man exclusively, and his elbow stays healthy, they’d owe him $15.65M from 2017-20 with the $6M mutual option for 2021. (Every option in the contract includes a $1.25M buyout.) Got all that? Point is, Jones is a contractual bargain relative to other top relievers.

What Would It Take?

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Gosh, it’s going to be really tough to pin down a trade benchmark for Jones given his recent Tommy John surgery and unique contract. Here are some relievers who were recently traded with at least four years of team control remaining:

  • Ken Giles: Traded with a top 20 org prospect (Jonathan Arauz) for a young big league starter (Vince Velasquez), a big league swingman (Brett Oberholtzer), a top ten org prospect (Mark Appel), a top 20 org prospect (Thomas Eshelman), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Harold Arauz).
  • Trevor Gott: Traded with a non-top 30 org prospect (Michael Brady) for Yunel Escobar in a salary dump.
  • Craig Kimbrel: Traded with Melvin Upton for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, a top 50 global prospect (Matt Wisler), and a non-top 30 org prospect (Jordan Paroubeck).

Yeah, this doesn’t help us much. Kimbrel was firmly established as one of the best relievers in baseball when he traded from the Braves to the Padres, if not the best. Gott had one year in the show as a middle reliever and was traded in a salary dump. Giles had five years of control remaining, not four, and that package is all over the place. That’s the deal that raised the price for late-inning bullpen help.

The Red Sox just gave up a young-ish player off their MLB roster (Travis Shaw), a top ten org prospect (Mauricio Dubon), a non-top 30 org prospect (Josh Pennington), and a player to be named later for three years of Tyler Thornburg, who like Jones is a good reliever with an injury history. That feels like the starting point for Jones. The Thornburg package. He won’t come cheap. I know that much. No good reliever does these days. The Yankees won’t be able to swing a deal by cobbling together a package of three or four guys from the bottom of their 40-man roster.

So What About The Yankees?

Even after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman last week, the Yankees are reportedly in the hunt for even more bullpen help. Nothing significant, they’re not going to sign Kenley Jansen or anything like that, but they want to beef up the middle relief. Ideally, they want a left-hander to pair with (or maybe replace?) Tommy Layne. Jones is not a southpaw, but he’s really good, so good that handedness doesn’t matter.

The Yankees already have a strong relief crew with Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind Chapman. Adam Warren is a fine fourth bullpen option, has been his entire career, though the Yankees may need him in the rotation. Adding Jones to Betances and Clippard would give the Yankees three really good setup relievers — Joe Girardi can have a sixth inning guy! — next year, and two really good setup relievers in the following years. (Clippard will be a free agent next winter. Betances and Jones would still be around.)

The real question is whether it’s worth giving up the prospects to acquire Jones given his contract and injury history, and really, we can’t know the answer to that until we get some idea of what the White Sox want. The Yankees don’t need Jones. He’d be a luxury. They’re in position to hang back and see how his market develops before deciding whether to get involved. New York doesn’t have to rush into any sort of decision. That’s good.

Problem is, Jones will probably be long gone before the prospect price drops low enough for the Yankees to get involved. I don’t think they want to give up any prospects for a reliever, especially not after signing Chapman. Maybe if they’d whiffed on Chapman and passed on Jansen because of the draft pick, Jones would make more sense. He’d be a really great addition to the bullpen. No doubt. My guess is the Yankees will find the cost prohibitive.

Scouting the Trade Market: Jose Quintana

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, after days and weeks of rumors, the White Sox finally traded staff ace Chris Sale. He did not go to the Nationals, as long rumored. He instead went to the Red Sox for a four-prospect package that included infielder Yoan Moncada, arguably the best prospect in baseball. Pitchers of Sale’s caliber do not get traded very often. That deal was the definition of a blockbuster.

With Sale gone, it stands to reason the White Sox will continue tearing things down and start a full blown rebuild. It would be completely silly to trade Sale for four non-MLB pieces only to keep everyone else. The ChiSox fire sale has just begun, I assume, which means left-hander Jose Quintana should be on the trade block as well. The former Yankees’ farmhand may not be as good as Sale, but he’s really good overall, and he’s signed cheap too. The Yankees should have interest in Quintana and here’s why.

Background

Might as well start here. Yes, Quintana was once in the Yankees’ farm system. Before that he was actually in the Mets’ farm system. The other New York team signed Quintana out of Colombia back in 2006. He spent a few seasons in their farm system, failed a performance-enhancing drug test, then got released. The Yankees scooped him up and he spent 2008-11 in their system. The 2011 season was his breakout year: 2.91 ERA (3.15 FIP) in 102 innings with High-A Tampa.

Quintana was eligible for minor league free agency following that breakout 2011 season. The Yankees opted not to add him to their 40-man roster, and a few weeks later the White Sox signed him to a guaranteed Major League contract. Can’t blame Quintana for jumping at the 40-man roster spot. “We liked him. We didn’t love him. He was a performer, but not someone with ceiling,” said Brian Cashman to Mike Fitzpatrick this summer. D’oh!

“A very poised young man. Professional. He knew how to pitch and work both sides of the plate. Just a good-looking kid,” said Joe Siers, the White Sox scout who recommended Quintana, to Scott Merkin two years ago. “To be honest, I didn’t know he would be a No. 2 starter. I thought he had a chance to be a back-end, a fourth starter. I knew he was a guy who could get some innings. He commanded the ball and could pitch deep into games.”

Recent Performance

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Quintana, 28 in January, has been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball since joining the White Sox. Over the last four seasons he has a 3.35 ERA (3.34 FIP) — his worst full season is a 3.51 ERA (3.82 FIP) back in 2013 — while throwing no fewer than 200 innings in any given year. According to both bWAR and fWAR, Quintana has been the seventh most valuable pitcher in baseball since 2013. Yeah.

Unlike Sale, Quintana is not going to blow hitters away and rack up big strikeout numbers. He’s not that type of pitcher. Quintana did have nice strikeout (21.6%) and walk (6.0%) numbers this summer — neither his ground ball (40.4%) nor home run (0.95 HR/9) rates were great — and he excels at keeping hitters off balance and generating weak contact. His average exit velocity on balls hit in the air these last two years is 89.6 mph, 11th lowest in baseball. So while Quintana’s ground ball rate isn’t stellar, he’s not giving up loud contact in the air either.

We have over 800 innings of data telling us Quintana is a very good Major League pitcher, one who has had success in a hitter friendly home ballpark in the DH league. He’s also done it despite having some shaky pitch-framers behind the plate. (Basically every catcher the White Sox have employed other than Tyler Flowers since 2013.) As long as he stays healthy, there is every reason to believe Quintana will be effective for the foreseeable future. Nothing is trending the wrong way.

Present Stuff

When Quintana first got to Chicago, longtime White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper helped him get to the next level by teaching him a cutter. Cooper has been teaching that cutter for decades now. Interestingly enough, Quintana has phased out the cut fastball and replaced it with a sinker over the last three seasons. He operates with a four-seamer, sinker, curveball, and changeup these days. From Brooks Baseball:

jose-quintana-pitch-selection

That’s a really nice mix. Quintana uses three pitches each more than 20% of the time, and his changeup rate hangs around 10% as well. He’s not a guy who leans on, say, his sinker and curveball, and uses the straight four-seamer and changeup as show-me pitches. Quintana is a true four-pitch pitcher, and he still has the cutter in his back pocket as well. Here’s some gory math (MLB averages for left-handed pitchers in parenthesis):

Average Velocity Swing-and-Miss Rate Ground Ball Rate
Four-seamer 92.6 (92.3) 8.3% (6.9%) 32.0% (37.9%)
Sinker 92.5 (91.0) 6.1% (5.4%) 50.0% (49.5%)
Curveball 78.0 (77.5) 11.7% (11.1%) 38.8% (48.7%)
Changeup 86.7 (83.3) 7.3% (14.9%) 47.2% (47.8%)

Those are 2016 numbers, the most recent season and the best indicator of who Quintana is right now. Again, nothing jumps out at you. The velocity is basically average to a tick above, there’s no dominant swing-and-miss pitch, and there’s no dominant ground ball pitch either. And yet, it works. Quintana’s command is a huge part of his success. So is his deception. Check out his release points from this past season, via Brooks Baseball:

jose-quintana-release-pointEverything is nice and tight together. It all overlaps. A lot of times you’ll see the pitcher has a different release point for his breaking ball — usually slightly higher than the fastball for a curveball, and slightly lower for a slider — but not with Quintana. All five pitches come out from the same spot. By time the hitter can tell the pitches apart as they approach the plate, it’s already too late. He’s had to start his swing. Quintana’s command and deception make up for his lack of overwhelming velocity and a dominant pitch. He makes it work.

Let’s look at some video. Reading about pitches and staring at a pitch selection chart only does so much. Let’s see Quintana in action. Here’s a 2016 highlight video — reminder: everyone looks like an ace in a highlight video — in which we get to see all five pitches in action:

Beautiful. Nice fluid delivery, fastballs to both sides of the plate, a willingness to pitch inside, a curveball that looks like a strike until it drops out of the zone … it’s easy to understand why Quintana is so successful. To quote my favorite cliche: he’s a pitcher, not a thrower.

The Yankees seem to have a type. They like pitchers with big fastballs and wipeout breaking balls, and hey, that stuff is cool. Their most successful pitchers this past season, Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, are quite the opposite though. They succeeded with command and pitchability, which happen to be Quintana’s two best traits. I would really like to see the Yankees get away from the huge stuff/bad command profile a bit, and Quintana would be a step in that direction.

Injury History

Easy: none. Quintana has never been on the disabled list or had any kind of noteworthy injury, Majors or minors. He had a start pushed back four days after taking a comebacker to the shin during Spring Training in 2013. That is the entirety of Quintana’s injury history.

Contract Status

The White Sox smartly inked Quintana to a five-year contract extension three seasons ago. The deal guaranteed him a mere $21M, which is a pittance compared to what he could have made through arbitration given his success. Can’t blame him for taking the guaranteed payday though. Anyway, here is the remainder of Quintana’s contract:

  • 2017: $6M
  • 2018: $8.35M
  • 2019: $10.5M club option ($1M buyout)
  • 2020: $10.5M club option ($1M buyout)

Assuming the options are picked up — unless Quintana suffers a catastrophic injury or develops the yips, they will be exercised, for sure — Quintana is owed $35.35M over the next four seasons. These days No. 1 starters are getting north of $30M per season. Quintana is a borderline ace and he’s owed roughly that through 2020. Pretty great contract, eh? Very luxury tax friendly given his production.

Trade Benchmarks

These are always tough to come up with but they are important. Our trade proposals suck, they really do, so it’s good to provide some context. You’re not going to get Quintana for the team’s best prospect you don’t like plus threes randos off the bottom of the 40-man roster, you know? Here are some pitchers recently traded when they were three or four years away from free agency, like Quintana.

  • Gio Gonzalez: One top 50-100 prospect (Derek Norris) and three top 15 org prospects (A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone).
  • Wade Miley: Two young arms with five years of control (Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster) and one top 30 org prospect (Raymel Flores).
  • Shelby Miller (four years of control): One year of an above-average big leaguer (Jason Heyward).
  • Shelby Miller (three years of control): One top 20 prospect (Dansby Swanson), one top 75 prospect (Aaron Blair), and five years of an average or better big leaguer (Ender Inciarte).
  • Chris Sale: One top five prospect (Yoan Moncada), one top 50 prospect (Michael Kopech), a top ten org prospect (Luis Basabe), and a top 30 org prospect (Victor Diaz).

I almost didn’t include the second Shelby Miller trade because it was so ridiculous, but you know what? It happened and it changed the market. All of a sudden every team with a good young pitcher raised their asking price. I know I would have done the same.

Of the four pitchers (five trades) listed above, I think the one closest to Quintana would be Sale. I really do. It’s four years of control vs. three years of control, but Quintana has been consistently above-average for four years running now. Gonzalez and Miley each had two good years at the time of their trades. Miller had two good years the second time he was traded. The difference in track record is pretty substantial.

Also, supply and demand, yo. The demand for pitching is high, as always, but the supply is very short. There are no good free agent starters left, and realistically, how many pitchers as good as Quintana are available in trades? There’s Chris Archer and Sonny Gray, and that’s about it. We could use the Gio trade or the Shelby trade as a benchmark, but ultimately, the marketplace is different. Quintana won’t come cheap. I know that much.

So What About The Yankees?

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

I don’t think it will happen, but it needs to be said anyway: the Yankees can’t let their history with Quintana get in the way of a potential deal. They screwed up five years ago. No doubt about it. They can’t let their pride get in the way of a deal. The Yankees would get mocked for trading top prospects for a guy they gave away a few years ago, but whatever. Own it, move on, and improve the team.

Okay, so anyway the Yankees have both a need for a long-term rotation help and the prospect wherewithal to swing a trade for a pitcher like Quintana. He has yet to turn 28 and he comes with four years of contractual control, so when all those shiny prospects are ready to start winning big league games, Quintana figures to still be in the prime of his career. That’s pretty cool. An over-30 star wouldn’t jibe with this roster. But a 27-year-old? Oh sure.

Whether the Yankees should dip into that farm system to get Quintana is a valid question. He won’t come cheap. The White Sox got two top 50 caliber prospects for Sale and I’m guessing they’ll want the same — or something close to it — for Quintana, plus other stuff. The Yankees would be starting a package with, say, Clint Frazier and Jorge Mateo. Or Aaron Judge and James Kaprielian. Ouch.

Jon Heyman hears “nobody’s sacred” with the White Sox, meaning they’re ready to trade everyone following the Sale deal. Quintana really does make a lot of sense for the Yankees — I mean, pitchers this good make sense for every team — and that fourth year of control is huge. If the Yankees aren’t a bonafide contender by year four, something has gone terribly wrong. Ideally you’re semi-contending by year two, you know?

I don’t have any problem with the Yankees trading good prospects for above-average big leaguers in their 20s with long-term control. It helps speed up the rebuilding transitioning process, at least in theory, and it allows them recoup value from prospects. Hanging on to every last prospect equals a lot of wasted opportunity. Some are most valuable as trade chips. Depending on the price, Quintana is maybe the best pitching target available to the Yankees this year, and I think they should pursue him pretty aggressively. Put that dynamite farm system to work.