Scouting the Free Agent Market: Joe Blanton

(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Spring Training is underway, and the Yankees have what feels like several dozen pitchers jockeying for position on the Opening Day roster. That may not be terribly far off the mark, to be fair, considering that the team has thirty-plus pitchers in camp (thirty-three between the 40-man roster, non-roster invitees, and the recently signed Jon Niese) – but there is a very real sense that the back of the rotation and two middle relief roles are up for grabs.

The smart money is on one of the losers of the rotation battle to be shuffled into a relief role, alongside someone that stands out in the pre-season as a whole. And, ultimately, that second role won’t be set in stone, as that pitcher will probably ride the shuttle between the Bronx and Scranton for the better part of 2017. The Yankees tend to round out their bullpens with scraps, after all.

At this point in the off-season, however, there is a shockingly good reliever that is somehow still available for straight cash in Joe Blanton. It’s not terribly often that one can end one of the 25 best relievers in baseball via free agency in late February, but here we are. The only real question is … why?

Injury History

Blanton has been a portrait of good health over the last five years (with one obvious caveat that I’ll get to in the next section). He last spent time on the disabled list in 2011, when he was dealing with a right elbow impingement that kept him off the field from late April through the first week of September. Since that season, Blanton has spent exactly zero days on the disabled list.

Recent Performance

The Angels released Blanton at the end of Spring Training in 2014, when he posted a 7.08 ERA in 20.1 IP. This came on the heels of his atrocious 2013 season (132.2 IP, 6.04 ERA, 5.12 FIP, -2.0 bWAR, -0.5 fWAR), so it isn’t terribly surprising that they elected to eat the last year and $8.5 MM of his contract. The A’s signed him to a minor-league deal a week later, and he made two starts at Triple-A before retiring.

Blanton got the itch to play again during the 2014-15 off-season, and the Royals obliged, signing him to a minor-league deal. He found his way onto the roster in May, and spent the rest of the season in the Majors, making 36 appearances (four starts) split between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. All told, he pitched to the following line: 76 IP, 2.84 ERA, 2.92 FIP, 25.6 K%, 5.2 BB%.

It was more of the same in 2016, which Blanton spent with the Dodgers after signing a one-year, $4 MM deal. He ranked 6th in the Majors with 80 IP out of the bullpen, with a 2.48 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 25.4% strikeouts, and 8.3% walks. The greatest difference came in his groundball rate, which plummeted from 48.6% in 2015 to 32.5% last season.

His overall line the last two seasons is impressive, to be sure, but it becomes somewhat staggering if you remove his four starts with the Royals, and focus exclusively on his time in the bullpen. To wit: 137.1 IP, 2.29 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.7 K/BB, 26.1 K%, 7.0 BB%, 0.7 HR/9. Those numbers were not too heavily slanted by playing half of his games in pitcher-friendly parks these last two years, either, as he posted a 2.40 ERA, 3.0 K/BB, 24.0 K%, and 8.1 BB% away from his home ballparks.

Present Stuff

Blanton’s stuff has remained fairly steady as a full-time reliever. Take a look at his month-by-month velocity over the last two seasons (and keep in mind that his four starts were in late June and early July of 2015):

brooksbaseball-chart

And on a more granular level, his stuff actually ticked-up from 2015 to 2016, perhaps as he grew more acclimated to a regular role as a one-inning reliever:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 was pitch selection, as, by Brook Baseball’s reckoning, Blanton scrapped his sinker almost entirely in favor of more curves and sliders:

brooksbaseball-chart-2

This usage rate jibes with his batted ball profile, given the aforementioned drop-off in groundballs. It did not have any other noteworthy impact on his production, however, as he was borderline dominant in each of the last two seasons.

Contract Estimate

Way back in November, both FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors pegged Blanton’s deal to be at 2-years, $14 MM. That feels unlikely now, given that we’re more than a week into Spring Training and he remains unsigned.

There is the possibility that Blanton values himself highly, given his performance, and is playing the waiting game. After all, pitchers get hurt all the time, and there are still teams looking for a closer (the Nationals are still in talks with the White Sox for David Robertson, for example). It’s pure conjecture, of course, but Blanton has walked away before and, at 36-years-old, it’s entirely possible that he is only willing to pitch on his terms.

Or, alternatively, that he’ll sign yet another minor-league deal by the time you’re reading this.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

The short answer is yes. Blanton has been, by most any measure, one of the twenty-five best relievers in baseball over the last two years. The Yankees have at least two openings in their bullpen, and adding a reliever of his quality would undoubtedly improve its depth and performance considerably. There’s also the added wrinkle that a successful Blanton could be dealt at the trade deadline if and when the Yankees become sellers, and more contenders are hit with the natural attrition that strikes most bullpens. And, depending on Scranton’s roster composition, his presence would allow Luis Severino or Bryan Mitchell (or whoever else isn’t in the rotation) to stay stretched out as a starter in Triple-A.

A longer answer may be no, however. The Yankees have a great deal of pitching depth in the upper minors, and it would likely behoove them to figure out what sort of quality that quantity represents. They currently have Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Mitchell as the leading candidates for two rotation spots. Two of those four will likely be considered for the bullpen, along with J.P. Feyereisen, Giovanny Gallegos, Ben Heller, and Jonathan Holder. And this ignores Jordan Montgomery (who will almost certainly pitch in the Majors this year), Jon Niese, and a few other pitchers that are an injury or poor performance away from consideration.

Does the upgrade that Blanton offers this year – performance and potential trade value included – negate the potential value of the Yankees sorting through the stockpile of arms currently in Spring Training? I’m not sure. And would the Yankees even be interested? It doesn’t seem likely. But it’s an intriguing consideration nonetheless.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: C.J. Wilson

(Ben Margot / Associated Press)
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

With Spring Training a week and change away, the Yankees seem to be comfortable with the status quo. That is, a rotation featuring Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and two of Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Jordan Montgomery, Adam Warren, Dietrich Enns, and Chance Adams. Despite the team’s commitment to the rebuild/reload, many remain skeptical that the team will head into a new season with forty-percent of the rotation in the hands of relatively inexperienced pitchers; and yet their commitment to maintaining a (comparatively) low payroll and the lack of options available may not give them much of a choice. If only there was some way to scrape the bottom of the bargain bin and find some experience…

…enter C.J. Wilson. The 36-year-old wrapped-up his 5-year, $77.5 MM deal with the Angels last season, after producing roughly league-average marks across the board (96 ERA+, 2.0 bWAR/2.9 fWAR per-162). Of course, that’s a bit misleading, as he hasn’t pitched since 2015. Which leads to:

Injury History

Despite some misgivings about Wilson transitioning from reliever to starter back in 2010, he was the portrait of durability for five seasons. He made at least 31 starts and tossed at least 175.2 IP every season from 2010 through 2014. It looked to be more of the same in 2015, as he made his first 21 starts without incident. Unfortunately, his season ended after his July 28 start, as he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his left (pitching) elbow.

Wilson was slated to be ready in time for Spring Training in 2016, as the surgery was said to be a complete success. It’s never quite that easy with pitchers, though, and his rehab started and stopped several times, as he experienced pain in his left shoulder. An MRI dismissed it as tendinitis, and a return engagement was set for May or June. That proved to be too ambitious, as Wilson’s season ended before it started, and he had surgery to repair fraying in his labrum and rotator cuff.

Wilson began a throwing program in December, and there is talk that he’ll have a showcase for teams within the coming weeks. A timetable for his return to a big league mound remains up in the air, however.

Recent Performance

Prior to going down with his elbow injury in 2015, Wilson was bouncing back nicely from his subpar 2014. Prior to his last start (from which he was removed with elbow pain), he had pitched to a 3.59 ERA (3.77 FIP) in 128.0 IP, with a 20.1 K%, 8.1 BB%, and 43.1 GB%. Those numbers are right in-line with his career norms, with the exception of his ground ball percentage. To wit:

wilson-gb

Wilson was good to great at burning worms for the majority of his career, but his ground ball rates have dipped to merely mortal levels of late. He has never been better than average at racking up whiffs or avoiding walks, so keeping the ball on the ground was the key to his success. The fact that he was mostly effective despite the lack of grounders in 2015 is an encouraging sign, though.

All told, in his six-ish seasons as a starting pitcher, Wilson threw 1171.1 IP of 3.76 ERA (3.78 FIP) ball, with close to league-average strikeout (20.3%) and walk (9.7%) rates.

Current Stuff

It’s difficult to know what Wilson’s current stuff is, because we haven’t seen him throw a pitch in nearly 17 months. Prior to the injuries, however, his velocity remained fairly steady.

brooksbaseball-chart

Wilson’s four-seamer, change-up, curveball, and slider all remained fairly steady during his time as a starting pitcher, which is a good (if surprising) sign. His sinker velocity has dipped about two MPH since 2010, including nearly a full MPH between 2014 and 2015. His cutter has fluctuated in usage and velocity, as well. That may explain his decreased ground ball tendencies; whether or not it was a product of bone spurs and a frayed rotator cuff and labrum remains to be seen.

If we assume that Wilson would return with his stuff mostly intact, we would be discussing a true six-pitch pitcher, as he has thrown all six of his offerings at least 5% of the time as a starter. His ability to mix and match has allowed him to keep batters off-balance in the past, inducing weak contact even when the sinker wasn’t sinking.

Contract Estimate

You couldn’t see it, but I assure you that I just shrugged.

Neither FanGraphs, nor MLB Trade Rumors, nor ESPN hazarded a guess at Wilson’s potential contract for 2017, and his market has been mostly quiet. The Marlins have been linked to him a few times, but nothing more substantial than tepid interest has been discussed. With a handful of healthy arms remaining on the market, it’s difficult to imagine teams breaking down the door to offer Wilson something more than an incentive-laden deal – and perhaps a minor league deal with an opt-out, at that. Barring desperation from some team or a ridiculously brilliant showcase from Wilson, I don’t see him getting more than that.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

I was interested in Wilson back when he signed with the Angels, and that intrigue still exists. It has been significantly tempered, of course, yet there are reasons to believe that he could fit in well with the Yankees.

Wilson was a solid starting pitcher the last time he took the mound, and his velocity indicators were mostly good. He’s 36 and hasn’t pitched in nearly a year and a half, which is disconcerting, but he also has less mileage on his arm than most starters of his age. A left-handed starting pitcher in Yankee Stadium will always be in demand, and Wilson’s track record suggests that he could be a match (particularly if his ground ball rates recover). Small sample sizes and selective endpoints be damned, it’s fun to note that Wilson sports a 2.73 ERA in 62.2 IP in Yankee Stadium,

There is no easy or legitimate way to explain away the risk, and I wouldn’t suggest that we should even try to. The opportunity cost is likely to be quite low, though, and depth is never a bad thing. And even if the best-case scenario is a return engagement in the bullpen, Wilson has held lefties to a .201/.284/.286 slash line in his career, and has experience closing.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luke Hochevar

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

We are just two weeks away from Spring Training and things are pretty quiet. All the big free agents (but not The Big Piece!) are off the market and most teams are merely filling out their benches, bullpens or simply taking flyers on intriguing talents. The Yankees haven’t made a significant move since they signed Aroldis Chapman a month and a half ago, and it is easy to wonder whether they’re going to make any more before camp starts.

One place where the Yankees have room for improvement is middle relief. Beyond Chapman and Dellin Betances, they have Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard and then an army of unproven young pitchers. Veteran relievers looking to catch on somewhere are in abundance right now. Let’s take a look at Luke Hochevar, who once won the clinching game of a World Series but is coming off a significant injury.

Injury History

There’s a reason the Kansas City Royals didn’t pick up Luke Hochevar’s option this winter despite another strong season for the 33-year-old righty. That reason is a significant surgery, his second in four years. He had surgery in August to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, which involves the compression of nerves near the neck and upper chest/shoulder. Pitchers from Matt Harvey to Tyson Ross to former Yankee Phil Hughes have dealt with TOS in the last year while it essentially ended the career of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. However, Royals reliever Chris Young overcame the surgery for an effective second act to his career.

The surgery involves the removal of a rib near the shoulder (here’s more from the Cleveland Clinic if you’re interested). The recovery time takes about six months, so Hochevar is on track to be ready for Spring Training, provided that someone has actually signed him.

Unfortunately for Hochevar, this isn’t his only major surgery in recent years. He lost his entire 2014 season and part of 2015 to Tommy John surgery, four years after he had suffered a partial tear of the UCL ligament but rehabbed it to return. His performance post-TJ surgery was well below his breakout 2013 numbers and are cause for concern. A pitcher two surgeries removed from his best season is no doubt a risk and that likely plays a large role in why he’s on the market right now.

Recent Performance

Hochevar the reliever has been an effective part of a competitive Royals team in the last few seasons. The former No. 1 overall pick made his debut in 2007 against, who else, the Yankees and was a struggling starter with ERAs well above 4.50 from 2008 to 2012.

The conversion to a reliever in 2013 was a revelation. He threw 70 1/3 innings that season, striking out 82 batters and allowing just 60 baserunners en route to a 1.92 ERA (2.96 FIP). He was buoyed a bit by a .214 BABIP, which can be explained in part by a career-best 21.6 percent hard contact rate.

After undergoing Tommy John, Hochevar’s numbers took a step back in 2015 and ’16. His strikeout percentage fell from 31.3 percent in 2013 to 22.9 and 26.5 percent in ’15 and ’16, respectively. His BABIP rose to .298 in 2015 and his ERA shot up to 3.73 (4.00 FIP). He produced a remarkably similar season in 2016 with a 3.86 ERA (4.06 FIP). His peripherals improved with better strikeout and walk rates, but his home run/fly ball rate rose to 12.8 percent. Perhaps the most alarming factor was the rise in hard contact percentage from 24.3 percent in 2015 to 39.4 percent in 2016.

He only threw 37 1/3 innings in 2016 after 61 1/3 (including postseason) in 2015. Hochevar was back to striking out more than a batter per inning and he sported a WHIP of just 1.07 in 2016, but his stuff may have taken a step back.

Present Stuff

When Hochevar was a starter, he had 5-6 pitches, but he cut his repertoire down to just three primary pitches as a reliever, eliminating an ineffective slider and changeup. He now relies on two fastballs (a four-seamer and a cutter) while using a curveball with knuckle curve grip. His fastball velocity jumped from 92.6 mph to 95.5 when he converted to relief pitching, but it is down to 94.4 post-TJ surgery.

Originally a seldom-used pitch, his cutter is now thrown over 40 percent of the time (46.8 last year). The cutter sits in the high 80s and is his go-to pitch because inducing a lot of swings and misses for a cutter. His four-seam fastball wasn’t as effective in 2016 after it used to be his most-used pitch before his Tommy John surgery. The curveball, which he throws with a knuckle curve grip, sits between 75-80 and can get swings and misses. Here are the whiffs per swing for each of his pitches in the last two years, via Brooks Baseball.

brooksbaseball-chart

Last season, his knuckle curve was his most effective pitch with batters posting a paltry 31 wRC+ against it. The opposition hit .205/.280/.329 (76 wRC+) vs. his cutter but had a 208 wRC+ against his four-seamer. His slider, which he only threw 26 times (compared to over 100 times for each of the other pitches), was hit around to the tune of a 244 wRC+. The less he uses the slider, the better.

If you want to see what his stuff looks like, check out the video below. He gets two strikeouts on his curveball and one on a cutter. He really has a lot of bite on the cutter.

Contract Estimate

As mentioned above, the Royals declined their option on Hochevar this offseason. It was worth $7 million and they chose instead to buy him out for $500,000. Assuming Hochevar is, in fact, healthy and ready to go for the spring, he would likely get a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Almost definitely less than that $7 million option, but maybe something around $3-4 million?

If Hochevar wants to bet on himself a bit more, there could also be a team option for the 2018 season. It’s also not hard to see the reliever market bottoming out and relievers like Hochevar having to settle for one-year deals or even MiLB deals.

Does He Fit The Yankees

Hochevar was weirdly connected to the Yankees before the trade deadline this year in conjunction with Carlos Beltran rumors. It didn’t make too much sense for Hochevar, who at the time just had an option for 2017, to be the headline of a return for Beltran, but the rumors may signify some interest from the Yankees’ front office.

Beyond their top four, the Yankees don’t have anything too reliable in their bullpen, not that Hochevar can necessarily be relied upon next year. He would represent a possible upgrade in the middle innings over rookies and other younger 40-man options like Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder. Hochevar can throw multiple innings — he did it only 13 times over the last two years, plus three more times in the 2015 playoffs — but he has thrown fewer and fewer innings each of his last three seasons.

If the Yankees truly see themselves as contenders, a move for a veteran reliever makes a lot of sense with the lack of depth in the rotation and the team’s desire for a dominant bullpen in past years. He has 10 2/3 innings of shutout playoff experience from 2015, whatever that’s worth, and likely doesn’t require a major cash outlay that would affect the team’s desire to get under the luxury tax in the next couple years.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Ryan Howard

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Hi everyone. Just to introduce myself, I’m a 23-year-old Penn grad from New Jersey. As Mike mentioned on Wednesday, I interned at The Players’ Tribune a couple summers ago. I’ve been following RiverAveBlues since 2008 and have been a Yankees fan for much longer. I also write at CSN Philly, so fittingly my first post here is about a former Phillie.

In under three weeks, the Yankees will be reporting to Spring Training. Based on comments from Brian Cashman and the general Yankees vibe of the last couple years, it’s unlikely they’ll make another major addition prior to camp, particularly with the team’s mandate to get under the luxury tax line in the next couple seasons.

However, there’s always room for guys who would come in on minor league deals with camp invites. One of the biggest names who is likely amenable to this arrangement is former NL MVP Ryan Howard. The 37-year-old first baseman is a far cry from that MVP season and he received a farewell from the Phillies at the end of last season, but he is not retired. Ken Rosenthal profiled him as he’s working to prove himself and stay in the game, hoping to find a part-time 1B/DH job in the American League. Could the Yankees use him? Time to examine that question further.

Offensive Performance

You’re not getting 2006-2011 Ryan Howard. For that six-year stretch, he averaged 33 home runs and 133 RBI with a 139 OPS+. During that stretch, Howard was a cornerstone for the Phillies’ playoff runs and 2008 World Series title. He was the NLCS MVP in 2009, although it’s hard to forget Damaso Marte’s dominance of him in the 2009 World Series.

So what is Howard now? He is no longer a full-time player, in large part because he can no longer hit left-handed pitching. He always had a platoon split, but it has become more dramatic as he’s aged. In 2016, he had -4 OPS+ against lefties in just 35 plate appearances, hitting an unseemly .121/.143/.212 (-14 wRC+). Simply put, if Howard is playing for the 2017 Yankees and getting significant playing time against lefties, something has likely gone seriously wrong.

And there’s a lot from his 2016 season to dislike. Specifically, the first two months. They were dreadful. Howard looked like a beaten down version of himself and it seemed like last season was the end of the road. In April and May, he struck out in over a third of his 158 plate appearances. May 2016 was probably the worst month of his career, sporting a .421 OPS and a 6 wRC+.

After the Phillies called up their first baseman of the future, Tommy Joseph, Howard was demoted into a part-time role and began to thrive when the calendar flipped to June and July. He still struck out a fair amount in the second half (30.3 K%) but his .262/.324/.608 (142 wRC+) performance in that time was a throwback to the Howard of old. During that period, his hard contact and line drive percentages perked up. He finished the season with 25 home runs, his third straight season with at least 23.

Statcast gives more reason to believe that Howard’s second half is real. On 207 batted-ball events, Howard had 33 barrels, or highly well-struck balls essentially, good for 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. That is 10th in all of baseball last year, one spot behind Giancarlo Stanton (Gary Sanchez is third). His exit velocity was 92.5 mph, tied for 3rd in the majors. Power is Howard’s calling card and even with his struggles, that’s one thing he is sure to provide.

Here’s his spray chart heat map from last season via Baseball Savant. He pulls the ball on the ground a lot and a little less in the air, but he’d still benefit from the short porch. As with many lefty power hitters, he deals with the shift a fair amount.

ryan-howard-spray-chart

As you may have guessed, his base running is well below average, even for a first baseman. His age doesn’t help, nor does the Achilles’ injury he suffered in 2011 (more on that below). He hasn’t stolen a base since 2011. Even before his injury, he was consistently a net negative on the base paths and that would certainly continue in 2017.

Defensive Performance

Just like on the bases, Howard’s speed, or lack thereof, hurts him in the field as well. Looking at FanGraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding for the last four seasons, Howard makes almost none of the plays rated unlikely to impossible and gets just 42.3 percent of the plays rated about even. Bird had similar numbers in his 2015 stint, but in a 10th of the sample size.

For first basemen with at least 1000 innings over the last four seasons, Howard is 39th out of 43 players in UZR/150 innings. Howard’s arm is rated poorly and he had a below average season in 2016 at coming up with scoops. He’s certainly no Mark Teixeira. Ultimately, playing him in the field is not a desired outcome. He’d ideally be a DH for any team, but his bat could make up for his first base deficiencies.

Injury History

Howard has spent parts of four seasons – 2007, ’10, ’12 and ’13 – on the disabled list. The most famous and significant injury was his Achilles tear in the final at-bat of the Phillies 2011 NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cardinals. He didn’t return until July the next season.

After the Achilles injury, he clearly lost a step, evidenced by his lack of stolen bases, not that he was fleet of foot to begin with. He’s actually been pretty healthy in recent seasons, partly thanks to a reduced role. If he is in a platoon role at first base and DH, his health shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Miscellaneous


I feel I’d be holding out on you if I didn’t show you Howard’s workout video from this offseason. His personal trainer begins it by saying his goal was “not to create a better baseball player, but to create a superhuman who also happens to play baseball” with an amused Howard looking on. Despite the hilarious quote, the video is actually a good peek into Howard’s workout routine and his viewpoint on his ‘breakup’ with the Phillies. Take a look.

Contract Estimates

The Phillies declined their $23 million team option for 2017, buying Howard out for $10 million. Overall, Howard received $135 million over the last five seasons. Not bad.

As mentioned at the outset, Howard’s likely looking for a MiLB deal with a camp invite. Likely one including an opt-out date towards the end of the spring.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

At first glance, the answer is no. If Greg Bird is hitting in spring training and looks like he did prior to his shoulder surgery, the answer is almost definitely no. But if Bird isn’t quite himself or the team determines he needs more time in AAA, well, then it gets a bit tricky. Tyler Austin could certainly take the first base job, but the Yankees very well may decide in that scenario to platoon him with … you guessed it, a veteran like Howard.

A DH platoon with Matt Holliday doesn’t make sense in terms of roster flexibility. Two players that can essentially only DH and pinch hit? Not optimal. Then there’s the fact that Holliday has almost no noticeable split and, in fact, has had years with reverse splits.

Howard, in theory, could accept AAA assignment and get brought in if the Yankees dealt with injuries at first, but it’s doubtful “The Big Piece” would take that demotion, even if it means returning to where he career took off (Scranton was the Phillies’ AAA affiliate when Howard rose through their system). The Yankees also signed 1B Ji-Man Choi to an MiLB deal that’ll likely mean Choi will be Scranton’s first baseman.

So Howard would have to earn his spot in the spring and Bird would likely have to lose it. With Howard, you want to catch lightning in a bottle, hoping that he can be like another Phillie position player turned Yankees DH. Howard’s 2016 second half may have just been a mirage, but a camp invite is probably worth the chance to determine whether that’s true.

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.