Scouting The Free Agent Market: Alexi Ogando

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

Aside from the still unsigned Max Scherzer and James Shields, the free agent pitching market is very thin. All that’s left is a bunch of reclamation project types — guys coming off injury or veteran pitchers nearing the end of the line. Guys like that. The Yankees could use another arm or two to protect against their risky rotation, though the current options aren’t all that appealing.

One of the many available reclamation project arms is ex-Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando, who was non-tendered back in November after throwing only 25 ineffective innings last season due to injury. Ogando held a showcase in Tampa last week and Peter Gammons said about two dozen clubs were expected to attend. Nick Cafardo heard teams are still concerned about his health, and then of course Ogando’s agent shot that down. From MLBTR:

Alexi Ogando was 92 to 93 and touched 94 at a bullpen session for numerous teams last week,” says (agent Larry) Reynolds. “After an earlier examination by Dr. [James] Andrews, coupled with his promising progression, we believe Alexi should have no problem securing a job and will be pitching on Day 1 of 2015 Spring Training.”

The 31-year-old Ogando has worked as both a starter and a reliever throughout his career, and his career numbers to date make him something of a rich man’s Esmil Rogers. For the Yankees, he could serve as rotation protection — perhaps only early in the season, until Ivan Nova returns or a better option becomes available via trade — and additional bullpen depth, at least if healthy. Let’s break Ogando down.

Injury History

Might as well start here and get it out of the way. Ogando missed most of last season with a ligament sprain in his elbow that did not require Tommy John surgery, but was serious enough to sideline him for an extended period of time. In 2013, Ogando landed on the DL three times with arm problems: he missed three weeks with a biceps strain, seven weeks with shoulder inflammation, and three weeks with a nerve issue in his shoulder. Aside from that, the only other time Ogando has been hurt in his career came back in 2012, when he missed a month with a groin strain.

The arm injuries are obviously a major concern. We’re talking about a recent history of both elbow and shoulder problems for a pitcher who is over 30. Barely over 30, but over 30 nonetheless. The teams telling Cafardo they are concerned about Ogando’s health and Ogando’s agent telling MLBTR his client is fine are both self-serving — teams are trying to depress his market and the agent wants to pump it up. Either way, it’s clear the physical will be a big part of the signing. Ogando has some name value and a history of strong performance, but he’s no help if he’s hurt or otherwise compromised on the mound due to injury.

Overall Performance

Did you know Ogando was once drafted in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft? Those guys almost never amount to anything, but the Rangers took him as an outfielder from the Athletics in 2005, converted him into a pitcher, and away he went. Neat story. Anyway, here is Ogando’s overall performance through the years, via Baseball-Reference:

Year Age Tm ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2010 26 TEX 1.30 44 0 41.2 31 6 6 2 16 39 348 3.06 1.128 6.7 0.4 3.5 8.4 2.44
2011 ? 27 TEX 3.51 31 29 169.0 149 73 66 16 43 126 126 3.65 1.136 7.9 0.9 2.3 6.7 2.93
2012 28 TEX 3.27 58 1 66.0 49 26 24 9 17 66 134 3.73 1.000 6.7 1.2 2.3 9.0 3.88
2013 29 TEX 3.11 23 18 104.1 87 38 36 11 41 72 133 4.36 1.227 7.5 0.9 3.5 6.2 1.76
2014 30 TEX 6.84 27 0 25.0 33 19 19 1 15 22 57 3.81 1.920 11.9 0.4 5.4 7.9 1.47
5 Yrs 3.35 183 48 406.0 349 162 151 39 132 325 129 3.80 1.185 7.7 0.9 2.9 7.2 2.46

Last season was a total disaster because of the injuries. Before that Ogando was a very good Major League pitcher, compiling a 3.12 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 381 innings from 2010-13. He is very much a fly ball pitcher — his career ground ball rate is 38.2% and his single-season best was only 43.8% in 2010 — but that isn’t automatically a bad thing. Ogando excels at getting infield pop-ups, which are very high percentage outs. His career fly ball rate is 40.8%, and of those fly balls, 12.8% have been pop-ups. Since 2010, only six pitchers have had a higher infield pop-up rate (min. 350 IP).

Infield pop-ups seem to be a common trait for pitchers who outperform their FIP — Jered Weaver, the poster boy for outperforming peripherals, has a 12.7% infield fly ball rate since 2010, essentially identical to Ogando’s — but there is a catch: Ogando’s infield pop-up rate has been consistently declining since his MLB debut. It was 18.6% during his debut in 2010, and it has since dropped to 14.7% in 2011, 13.7% in 2012, 9.5% in 2013, and 5.3% in 2014. That’s not good. Pop-ups aren’t the only reason Ogando has been successful, but they are a big part of who he is as a pitcher.

The league average pop-up rate has hovered right around 9.8% over the last five years, so Ogando still had an average rate two years ago. The big drop last season could be due to his elbow issue. At least that’s what whoever signs him will hope.

Rotation vs. Bullpen

Ogando has spent approximately one full season and one half season as a regular big league starter. He’s spent the rest of his career working out of the bullpen. Surprisingly, Ogando the starter and Ogando the reliever have been very similar statistically:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% IFFB% HR/FB% BABIP
as SP 267.2 3.40 3.95 17.6 7.4 38.1 12.7 8.3 .261
as RP 138.1 3.25 3.51 22.7 8.8 38.5 13.1 7.5 .278

Regardless of role, Ogando has always performed a bit better against righties (.283 wOBA and 3.02 FIP) than lefties (.296 wOBA and 4.02 FIP). The difference in strikeout rate between roles is fairly standard but otherwise Ogando managed to keep everything relatively close. If teams knew Ogando was 100% healthy, they’d be lining up to sign him thanks to his versatility. The injuries add a ton of risk and are why he remains unsigned in mid-January despite such a thin pitching market.

Stuff

For the first three years of his MLB career, Ogando was a pure fastball/slider pitcher who rarely threw a changeup. Even as a starter in 2011, he threw 67% fastballs, 29% sliders, and 4% changeups. Ogando has increased the usage of his changeup the last two years though, throwing it a bit more than 12% of the time from 2013-14. That’s nice, but the fastball and slider are still his bread and butter. The changeup is a distant third pitch.

Ogando had premium velocity early in his career, averaging 97.5 mph with his fastball as a reliever in 2010, 96.1 mph as a starter in 2011, and then 98.1 mph as a reliever in 2012. He’s sat a bit below that the last two years — 94.8 mph as mostly a starter in 2013 and 95.2 mph as a reliever in 2014 — but still offered above-average velocity in general. Obviously the injuries likely played a part in the velocity decline. For what it’s worth, Ogando’s slider has consistently sat in the 82-85 mph range over the years.

Here is how Ogando’s fastball/slider with a show-me changeup mix has fared at getting swings-and-misses and ground balls over the years, via Brooks Baseball:

FB Whiff% FB GB% SL Whiff% SL GB% CH Whiff% CH GB%
2010 (RP) 11.8% 35.4% 12.2% 51.2% 13.2% 60.0%
2011 (SP) 9.0% 39.2% 13.3% 36.3% 16.5% 41.2%
2012 (RP) 13.9% 27.9% 16.6% 52.5% 0.0% 75.0%
2013 (SP) 6.7% 32.5% 13.1% 48.7% 12.3% 59.7%
2014 (RP) 7.5% 28.4% 15.3% 54.6% 23.5% 63.6%
MLB AVG 6.9% 37.9% 15.2% 43.9% 14.9% 47.8%

Remember, Ogando barely threw his changeup from 2010-12, so only the 2013-14 numbers matter there. His fastball has never been much of a ground ball pitch but from 2010-12, it was a top notch swing-and-miss pitch. The last two years, thanks to the reduced velocity and injuries, it’s been closer to average. Ogando’s slider has actually been generally been below-average at getting empty swings through the years.

Ogando’s fastball is his money-maker based on how often he’s thrown it throughout his career, which has been north of 60%. At its best, it had upper-90s velocity, got a well-above-average amount of swings and misses, and helped get all those infield pop-ups. Ogando’s fastball has been compromised these last two years though, presumably due to his injuries, and that means he’s simply not the same pitcher.

Ogando’s agent told MLBTR his client was “92 to 93 and touched 94 at his workout last week, which is actually encouraging if true. Remember, it’s only mid-January and he’s not in midseason form. After a full Spring Training and all that he should add a tick or two of velocity, like just about all other pitchers. That’s not guaranteed though, and there’s no possible way to know what Ogando’s fastball will look like come the regular season. It’s all guesswork.

Contract Situation

The Rangers opted to non-tender Ogando rather than pay him a projected $2.6M in 2015, his second to last year of team control, which I think speaks volumes about his health. Texas’ pitching staff is pretty thin and you’d think they would take Ogando at that salary this coming year if they were at all confident he could stay healthy and/or be effective. Instead, they walked away. That’s a red flag. They know him better than anyone, remember.

Ogando’s agent said he is seeking a big league contract, and that could still happen, but I don’t think he’d make sense for the Yankees in that case. Remember, signing Ogando to a big league deal means someone has to be dropped from the 40-man roster, so it costs you a player. With Eury Perez likely to go for Stephen Drew, next in line to get the axe is probably Gonzalez Germen. Either him, Chase Whitley, or Jose DePaula. Ogando might be worth the roll of the dice in that case, but the Yankees would be letting go of a healthy, MLB ready and able body for a pitcher who might not be what he once was.

As for a minor league contract, of course, go for it. If he does have to settle for a minor league deal, Ogando and his agent are going to be looking for the best opportunity, a team with a rotation opening or a thin bullpen. The Yankees have an open bullpen spot but a lot of internal candidates. Their rotation looks like it will need help, but right now that isn’t set in stone. Ogando could opt to go to a team with a more obvious rotation need, like, say, the Diamondbacks or White Sox.

Bottom line, Ogando will be a big risk next year given his recent injuries. He could be throwing well in showcases this winter and that’s fine, but pitchers who have had arm injuries two years running tend to continue getting hurt going forward. The Yankees need to add more certainty to their rotation somehow and Ogando would be doubling down on risk. And at this point of the offseason, that might be the only way to help the rotation without breaking the bank for Scherzer or Shields.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Rickie Weeks and Gordon Beckham

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two weeks ago the Yankees robbed Peter to pay Paul by trading their starting second baseman for rotation help. Martin Prado was swapped for Nathan Eovaldi, leaving the team with a bunch of low cost options at second base. As of right now, Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder are expected to compete with non-roster invitees like Nick Noonan, Cole Figueroa, and Jonathan Galvez for the second base job in Spring Training.

Of course, these are the Yankees, and they could always go into free agency and bring in a more veteran second baseman. I don’t think it will happen — the team definitely seems to be making a concerted effort to get younger this winter — but I wouldn’t rule it out completely either. Among the two most notable free agent second basemen still available are Rickie Weeks and Gordon Beckham, a pair of former elite prospects who didn’t quite live up to the hype. Is either a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

He wasn’t Robinson Cano or anything, but from 2010-11, Weeks was a damn fine player, hitting .269/.360/.466 (126 wRC+) with 58 doubles, 49 homers, and 20 stolen bases in 278 total games. The last three seasons haven’t been nearly as productive, however.

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ BABIP K% BB% GB% wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs. LHP
2012 677 .230/.328/.400 97 .285 25.0% 10.9% 45.1% 94 108
2013 399 .209/.306/.357 85 .268 26.3% 10.0% 49.4% 79 97
2014 286 .274/.357/.452 127 .355 25.5% 8.7% 56.7% 109 142

Weeks kinda stunk in 2012, got hurt in 2013, then was used mostly as a platoon player in 2014, with 47% of his plate appearances coming against southpaws. It’s also worth noting his walk rate has declined because he’s swinging at more and more pitches out of the zone — he swung at 18.6% of pitches out of the zone in 2012, and that shot up to 20.7% in 2013 and 25.2% in 2014. And when Weeks swings out of the zone, it can be ugly. Hilarious, but ugly:

(GIF via Getting Blanked)

As for Beckham, he had a very promising MLB debut in 2009, hitting .270/.346/.460 (109 wRC+) with 14 homers in 430 plate appearances just a year after being the eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft. Since then though, Beckham has hit an awful .241/.300/.361 (79 wRC+) in just over 2,500 plate appearances, including a career-worst 70 wRC+ in 2014. His strikeout (17.0%) and walk (6.4%) rates from 2010-14 were fine, nothing extreme, but he just didn’t hit at all. He doesn’t have a platoon split either: career 82 wRC+ against righties and 85 against lefties.

This isn’t a small sample either. We have nearly 3,000 plate appearances telling us Beckham flat out can not hit MLB caliber pitching. That 2009 debut was nice, but it happened so long ago that it’s not even relevant anymore. At this point, the only reasons Beckham remains interesting are his age (just turned 28) and his status as a former elite prospect. And, just for the record, Baseball America ranked Beckham has the 20th best prospect in baseball before the 2009 season, a few spots behind Lars Anderson and a few spots ahead of Matt LaPorta. Yeah, it’s been a while since he was a prospect.

Defense & Versatility

One thing Beckham has on Weeks is his versatility. He’s spent the vast majority of his career at second base, but he’s also played some third base and shortstop, including after being traded to the Angels this past August. Weeks, on the other hand, has never played a position other than second base in his career. In fact, the Brewers asked him to try left field this past season and Weeks said no. That’s … not good.

The various defense stats say Beckham has been about average at second base throughout his career, and the samples aren’t nearly big enough for the numbers to mean anything about his abilities at short and third. The fact that he’s actually willing to play elsewhere is a plus though, at least compared to Weeks. The defense stats crush Weeks at second, by the way. Far below average. Defense and versatility are easily advantage Beckham.

Injury Histories

Weeks missed the final two months of the 2013 season after tearing his left hamstring running out a ground ball, an injury that was severe enough to require surgery. He also has a history of wrist problems: tendon surgery (right wrist) in 2006, inflammation (right wrist) in 2007, and tendon sheath surgery (left wrist) in 2009. Weeks also visited the DL for a knee sprain in 2008 and an ankle sprain in 2011. During his time as an everyday player from 2006-13, Weeks played in only 918 of 1,296 possible games, or 71%. At age 32, he probably isn’t getting any healthier.

Beckham, on the other hand, missed a month with an oblique strain this past season and two months with a broken hamate bone in his right wrist early last season. (The hamate required surgery.) Otherwise Beckham has been healthy throughout his career. Some minor day-to-day stuff, but that’s it. Oblique and hamstring injuries happen, the wrist injuries are much more worrisome, and Weeks has a longer history of ’em.

Contract Estimates

Both Weeks and Beckham were cut loose by their former teams earlier this offseason — the Brewers declined their $11.5M club option for Weeks while the Angels opted to non-tender Beckham rather than pay him a projected $5M salary in 2015. Both moves were expected and understandable. Because Beckham did not become a free agent until late-November, there are no contract estimates for him anywhere. Here’s what we have for Weeks:

Weeks definitely seems like a one-year contract candidate, but, then again, we live in a world where Omar Infante got four years and Brendan Ryan got two years (and a player option!). I wouldn’t be surprised if Weeks ends up with two guaranteed years. Also, it’s probably worth noting Weeks is very close friends with CC Sabathia dating back to Sabathia’s short stint with the Brewers — the photo of super skinny CC that went around last offseason was taken at Weeks’ wedding — so, if nothing else, Sabathia could probably serve as a recruiter if the Yankees have interest.

I have to think Beckham is a one-year deal guy — 2015 would have been his final year of arbitration-eligibility, so he won’t remain under control in 2016 or anything like that — because he simply hasn’t hit for five years now. At least Weeks was pretty good in a limited role this past season. The going rate for free agent utility infielders seems to be $2M or so annually, which makes sense for Beckham. Maybe he gets a little more because he’s still young and teams like to spend money. Two years though? For a no hit, average defender? Eh. Hard to see that.

Both Weeks and Beckham will presumably look to join a team that will let them play everyday — the Cardinals reportedly had interest in Weeks as a utility guy but that went nowhere — and the Yankees could give them that opportunity if they really wanted. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of handing non-elite prospects like Pirela and Refsnyder a job out of Spring Training. A veteran to add depth and a safety net ain’t a bad idea in my opinion.

Personally, I prefer Beckham over Weeks because he’s better able to slide into a traditional utility role and can at least catch the ball. Weeks is terrible in the field and, given the last few years, it’s not safe to assume he will hit when playing everyday either. That Beckham is several years younger and figures to cost less are secondary concerns. Based on what they are at this point in time, Beckham seems to be a better fit for the roster. The Yankees haven’t shown interest in either as far as we know, but they are among the available options.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: James Shields

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Now that the Yankees know their dominant bullpen will feature only two elite relievers rather than three, the focus turns to the rotation, which needs quite a bit of help given all the injury concerns. The idea of relying on the Dellin BetancesAndrew Miller tandem in the late innings only works if the starter can get through the first six or seven innings, and right now I’m not sure if the Yankees have anyone capable of doing that.

Behind Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, the consensus third best pitcher on the free agent market this winter is ex-Rays right-hander James Shields. He’s older than Scherzer and Lester but is still outstanding and will command a hefty contract. Shields is also a top of the line workhorse and the Yankees sure could use someone they could count on for innings. Let’s see if he makes sense for New York given their pitching situation.

Consistently Excellent

Outside of an ugly 2010 season in which he was alarmingly homer prone (1.50 HR/9 and 13.8 HR/FB%), Shields has been outstanding these last few seasons. He was very good but not truly elite with the Rays from 2007-09 before that down 2010, but since them he’s been dynamite. Here are the stats:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2010 249.1 2.82 3.42 23.1% 6.7% 46.2% 11.1% .286 .269
2011 227.2 3.52 3.47 23.6% 6.1% 52.3% 13.4% .286 .306
2012 228.2 3.15 3.47 20.7% 7.2% 41.6% 8.6% .331 .276
2013 227.0 3.21 3.59 19.2% 4.7% 45.2% 9.7% .310 .309
TOTAL 932.2 3.17 3.49 21.7% 6.2% 46.3% 10.6% .303 .290

Like I said, Shields has been consistently excellent since that ugly 2010 campaign. The declining strikeout rate is a red flag, especially since the league average strikeout rate continues to increase year after year, but there appears to be a perfectly valid non-decline explanation for the lack of strikeouts, which we’ll look at in the next section. Otherwise you’re getting everything you could want from a pitcher — innings, few walks, lots of grounders, no platoon split, the works. In summation: Shields definitely has a G Factor of 1.

Stuff Breakdown

Unlike Scherzer, Shields is not someone who will blow hitters away with high-end stuff. He doesn’t throw in the mid-90s, doesn’t buckle knees with a breaking ball, nothing like that. Shields succeeds because he throws five different pitches and consistently locates them in the lower third of the zone. In fact, among the 128 pitchers to throw at least 5,000 pitches over the last three seasons, Shields has 26th highest percentage of pitches in the lower third of the strike zone (and below) at 56.0%, according to Baseball Savant.

The strike zone continues to expand downward league-wide — this Jon Roegele post and this Jeff Sullivan post do a great job detailing recent strike zone expansion — so it’s easier to get a called strike at the knees (and below!) than ever before. Having the ability to keep the ball down like Shields is a great weapon. Nowadays hitters have to swing at these pitches to protect the plate and very few can hit balls that far down in the zone with authority. The result is a lot of weak contact and that’s a big reason why Shields is able to continually outperform his FIP.

As for his actual stuff, Shields does throw five pitches regularly, but his pitch selection did change a bit when he got to Kansas City two years ago. Check it out (via Brooks Baseball):

James Shields pitch selection

For whatever reason, Shields scaled back the usage of his changeup and curveball while with the Royals and instead ramped up the use of his cutter. The changeup was his go-to pitch for the early part of his career, he sold it extremely well (meaning it looked like a fastball out of his hand) and the pitch tumbled right off the table. It was devastating. The curveball is a good strikeout pitch in general. Certainly moreso than the cutter.

Fewer changeups and curveballs could explain why Shields’ strikeout rate has dropped the last two years, his only two with the Royals. Let’s look at the swing-and-miss rate of his five pitches over the last few years:

Four-Seamer Sinker Cutter Curveball Changeup
2011 3.8% 4.0% 6.7% 13.4% 22.1%
2012 5.3% 6.7% 8.4% 10.4% 21.6%
2013 5.6% 4.4% 9.8% 9.6% 20.5%
2014 6.0% 4.7% 11.1% 16.2% 18.6%
MLB AVG 6.9% 5.4% 9.7% 11.1% 14.9%

The changeup and curveball have been, by far, Shields’ best pitches for swings and misses over the last few years. The cutter is trending in the right direction and is it starting to catch up a bit, but there’s still a comfortable gap between that pitch and the other two. So this makes sense then, right? Shields has thrown more cutters but fewer changeups and curveballs during his two years in Kansas City, which is why his strikeout rate is down. We can’t really prove this but it certainly sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

I spent some time scouring the internet to try to figure out why exactly the Royals had Shields change his pitch selection — or whether he did it on his own — but came up empty. Maybe they wanted him to pitch to contact and get quick outs? Unless there’s some sort of underlying physical reason why he can’t throw his changeup or curveball as much anymore — I guess that if his elbow barking, it could explain fewer curveballs, but I’m not sure what would physically prevent a pitcher from throwing changeups — Shields should be able to use those pitches more in the future and boost his strikeout rate a few percentage points.

Otherwise Shields’ stuff has held up remarkably well over the years. In fact, his velocity increased this past season. Check it out:

James Shields velocity

Not often you see a soon-to-be 33-year-old pitcher add about seven-tenths of a mile an hour to his pitches, especially not when they’ve thrown as many innings as Shields. Hey, maybe throwing fewer changeups and curveballs allowed him to better build and maintain arm strength throughout the season. Who knows. Either way, Shields’ stuff is more than fine. No red flags here.

Big Workload & Injury History

Like I said, Shields has thrown a ton of innings so far in his career. He missed the entire 2002 season in the minors due to major shoulder surgery but has otherwise thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2007 and at least 220 innings in each of the last four years. The guy is a bonafide horse. Shields has taken the ball every fifth day and gone deep into games his entire career now. He’s never been hurt aside from that 2002 shoulder issue. It’s pretty remarkable.

Shields has thrown just short of 2,000 careers innings to date (1,910.1 to be exact), so I wanted to see how other recent pitchers with similar workloads fared later in their careers. Since 1990, 40 pitchers other than Shields threw at least 1,800 innings before the age of 33, and 26 of those 40 have finished their careers. Excluding Daryl Kile, the remaining 25 pitchers averaged 2,080.1 innings and 36.3 bWAR before their age 33 season. But, starting with their age 33 season, they averaged only 586.2 innings and 7.2 bWAR the rest of their careers. That’s scary. (Here’s my spreadsheet.)

Now, I think we can all agree Shields is more Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte than Jeff Suppan and Jaime Navarro, but what if he’s Brad Radke? Or Andy Benes? Those guys were workhorses earlier in their careers and completely done after 32. Like done done. Without warning too. What if he’s Barry Zito or Kevin Appier? Healthy enough to continue pitching but simply not any good? That’s the risk whichever team signs him is going to take.

Contract Estimates

The Royals did make Shields the qualifying offer, so he will cost a draft pick to sign, but that’s only a minor consideration when talking about a player of this caliber. No team will lose sleep over forfeiting a pick to sign a high-end starter. Here are some contract estimates from around the web.

The offseason has been very quiet for Shields so far. The same is true for Scherzer. It seems like everyone was waiting for Lester to come off the board before turning their attention to the rest of the pitching market. The Giants and Marlins are said to have some interest in Shields but that’s all right now. Check out his MLBTR archive if you don’t believe me.

I think Shields is going to wind up with something like five years and $100M, right in line with the estimates. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey contracts from a few years ago adjusted for inflation. He’s not young and there are a ton of miles on his arm, but he is excellent and would be a major short-term upgrade for a contending team. Whoever signs Shields will be focused on winning in 2015 and 2016, not worrying about how the deal will look in years four and five of the contract. He makes the most sense for a win now team, basically.

Wrapping Up

Between his performance, his stuff, and his injury, Shields carries no red flags whatsoever. The only concern is his career workload to date and the expectation that it will eventually catch up to him and he’ll break down. After everything that’s happened with CC Sabathia these last two years, it’s hard not to be concerned about Shields’ workload. (To be fair, Sabathia threw way more innings at a young age than Shields.)

Shields would help the Yankees the way he would help every team. There’s not a rotation in baseball that wouldn’t get better by adding him. The contract figures to be shorter than the massive pacts Lester and Scherzer will receive, but you’re also getting fewer of his theoretical prime years. After all, is seven years for 30-year-old Lester or Scherzer all that different than five years for 32-year-old Shields? You’re getting a similar chunk of his career minus some peak years. Shields offers AL East pedigree and is a reliable innings guy, so that alone makes him a good fit for New York. Whether the price is right is another matter.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jason Grilli and Rafael Soriano

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With both Andrew Miller and David Robertson now off the board, the free agent reliever market is starting to heat up. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek agreed to deals with the Astros earlier today, Sergio Romo is in talks with several teams, and I’m sure many more relievers are drawing interest right now as well. The Yankees don’t absolutely need another reliever, but there’s always room in the bullpen for another quality late-inning arm.

Two of the more, shall we say, veteran relievers on the market are right-hander Jason Grilli and ex-Yankee Rafael Soriano. New York is said to be at least “monitoring” both guys. Both Grilli and Soriano are on the wrong side of 35 — well, Soriano turns 35 next week, so close enough — whose best days are likely behind them, but are still good enough to be assets in relief. Plus they both figure to come on short-term contracts. Is either a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Because they are older relievers on the downside of their careers, I think we’re better off focusing on what Grilli and Soriano did this past season moreso than the last two or three seasons and especially what they did earlier this careers. I don’t think what Soriano did in his first stint in New York tells us a whole lot about what he’ll do in 2015, for instance. That was a long time ago in reliever years. So here’s what these two did during the 2014 season:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
Grilli 54.0 4.00 3.37 24.3% 8.9% 32.0% 6.5% 0.313 0.310
Soriano 62.0 3.19 3.08 23.4% 7.5% 31.6% 4.8% 0.297 0.273

Grilli had a pretty bad first half (3.95 ERA and 4.63 FIP) and a better second half (4.05 ERA and 2.08 FIP), at least when you look at things like strikeout and walk rates rather than runs allowed. Soriano was the opposite — he had a dynamite first half (0.97 ERA and 2.43 FIP) but a yucky  second half (6.48 ERA and 4.05 FIP). Both guys lost their closer’s jobs to ex-Yankees draft picks (Mark Melancon and Drew Storen) during the summer too.

Grilli and Soriano are very similar pitchers. They strike out an above-average number of hitters, walk about a league average number of hitters if not a tick more, and don’t get any ground balls. Instead of grounders they get a lot of weak pop-ups, which are actually preferable. Pop-ups are damn near automatic outs. A ridiculous 17.7% of Grilli’s fly balls last year were infield pops, and he’s consistently been over 14.0% infield pop-ups since resurfacing with the Pirates a few years ago. Soriano had a 7.7% infield pop-up rate in 2014 after sitting well over 12.0% from 2010-13.

Soriano’s decline in pop-up rate is not necessarily a sign of decline — he had a 12.0%+ pop-up rate from 2006-08, dipped down to 7.3% in 2009, then jumped right back up to 12.0%+ from 2010-13. It could just be one of those weird random baseball things. Like when Robinson Cano hit .271 in 2008 and .320 in 2009. Both Soriano and Grilli rely on pop-ups and strikeouts to get their outs, which is a really great strategy, though it is worth noting Grilli’s strikeout rate dropped quite a bit in 2014 while Soriano’s has been holding steady for a few years now:


Source: FanGraphsJason Grilli, Rafael Soriano

Grilli bounced around earlier of his career and didn’t turn into a stellar late-inning reliever until the 2011 season, when the Pirates gave him a shot. Since that 2011 season he’s been a strikeout machine, much moreso than Soriano. Even in 2014, in which Grilli’s strikeout rate dropped considerably, he still fanned more batters than Soriano. That said, it was still a significant drop. Grilli struck out 36.9% of batters faced in 2012, 36.6% in 2013, and 24.3% in 2014. Big drop.

Overall, Grilli and Soriano are very similar pitches who got different results this past season. Grilli’s declining strikeout rate is a red flag, moreso than Soriano’s drop in pop-up rate. They’ll both make you pull your hair out with walks from time to time too. Grilli was better than Soriano from 2012-13 (2.82 ERA and 2.42 FIP vs. 2.68 ERA and 3.48 FIP), but at his age I don’t think you can bank on 2012-13 Grilli coming back. The upside for both guys at this point of their careers is probably maintaining their 2014 performance in 2015 and not declining any. Obviously that seems more realistic for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Soriano than the 38-year-old Grilli.

Stuff Breakdown

Both Grilli and Soriano are fastball/slider guys, so this will be a pretty straight forward comparison. (Soriano threw a ton of cutters earlier in his career but has since scaled back on it big time.) Grilli’s fastball has consistently sat right around 93 mph since he returned to the show with Pittsburgh while Soriano’s has been gradually declining from 92.6 mph with the Yankees in 2012 to 91.5 mph with the Nationals in 2014. They both throw their sliders a lot, basically one-third of the time, and Soriano throws his in the mid-80s, a bit harder than Grilli’s low-80s offering.

Since they’re both fly ball pitchers, I’m not going to bother looking up the ground ball rates for their fastballs and sliders. Instead we’ll just focus on the swings and misses over the last few seasons:

Grilli FB Grilli SL Soriano FB Soriano SL
2012 14.9% 18.2% 10.9% 13.9%
2013 12.3% 20.9% 9.1% 13.7%
2014 10.3% 15.6% 13.6% 16.7%

The MLB average swing and miss rate for fastballs and sliders are approximately 6.9% and 15.2%, respectively. Grilli gets a ton of whiffs with both his fastball and slider, though they are trending in the wrong direction. Soriano has gotten an above-average amount of empty swings with his fastball but, up until the 2014 season, a below-average amount with his slider. Soriano’s swing and miss rates were better than Grilli’s in 2014 while Grilli’s were better than Soriano’s from 2012-13.

Given his age, it’s no real surprise Grilli wasn’t able to generate as many swings and misses this past season, and that’s a red flag. Chances are he’ll get even fewer swings and misses next season. Soriano’s whiff rates actually ticked upwards and that’s encouraging. Neither guy has a big platoon split — Soriano did last season but bounced back this season — so their fastballs and sliders work against batters on both sides of the plate. How much longer will that last?

Injury Histories

This is where it gets really ugly. Grilli had Tommy John surgery back in 2002 and missed the entire 2010 season with a torn quad. He missed two months with an elbow strain in 2003, three weeks with elbow inflammation in 2009, and six weeks with a flexor tendon strain in 2013. An oblique strain sidelined him for a month this past season. That’s a lot of elbow issues over the years. Grilli has thrown 50+ innings each year from 2012-14, the first and only other time he’s done that since 2006-08.

Soriano, meanwhile, just threw 50+ innings in three straight seasons for the first time in his career. He had Tommy John surgery way back in 2004 then needed another surgery to correct a nerve issue and remove a bone spur from his elbow in 2008, which caused him to miss most of the season. Soriano also missed three months with elbow inflammation while with the Yankees in 2011. His history of elbow problems is pretty severe, though aside from some shoulder fatigue and a concussion when he was hit by a comebacker, both back in 2006, he hasn’t had any other injury problems.

Both Grilli and Soriano have a long history of elbow problems and also of not staying healthy for extended periods of time. If they managed to throw 50+ innings in 2015, it’ll be the first time either guy throws that many innings in four straight seasons in their careers. Given their ages and injury histories, I’m not sure how reasonable it is to expect them to continue to stay on the field going forward. Not saying it can’t happen, just that there’s a risk factor.

Contract Estimates

Grilli has definitely reached the point in his career where he’ll have to go year to year to continue playing. No club is giving a just turned 38-year-old reliever multiple guaranteed years. Soriano, on the other hand, is still young enough and close enough to his best seasons that he might be able to secure a two-year pact. Here are some contract estimates:

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: Two years, $14M for Soriano. (No results for Grilli.)
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): Two years, $16M for Soriano. One year, $3.5M for Grilli.
  • Keith Law (subs. req’d): One year, $3M to $4M for Soriano. One year, $2M to $3M for Grilli.

KLaw seems to hate relievers, so I’m inclined to throw out his contract numbers for Soriano based on the other estimated. Based on FanGraphs and Bowden, Soriano’s looking at something like two years at $7.5M annually. Based on Bowden and Law, Grilli’s looking at a one-year deal at $3M or so. Those numbers make sense to me. Soriano’s deal would be similar to what the Padres gave Joaquin Benoit last year and Grilli’s deal would be in line with basically every late-career reliever contract in recent history.

Wrapping Up

At this point, with Robertson and Miller off the board, all remaining free agent relievers have some kind of red flag. Grilli’s strikeout rate fell a ton last year and Soriano had that brutal second half. Both guys also have a history of elbow problems. The Yankees know Soriano from his time in New York — that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier to strike a deal, remember Brian Cashman very publicly said he didn’t want to sign him, so maybe Soriano holds a grudge or something — but Grilli would be coming in blind.

There is clearly a spot in the bullpen for another veteran late inning reliever, and both Soriano and Grilli could assume the closer’s job so Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller could remain in setup roles. I would prefer the Yankees to stick to a one-year contract so they could more easily cut bait at midseason if necessary, which would take them out of the running for Soriano. Of course, the team may feel differently and could be open to bringing Soriano back on a two-year contract. Both are qualified for the late innings and both are risky. Pick your poison.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Justin Masterson

(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)
(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)

At the Winter Meetings this week and really throughout the rest of the offseason, the Yankees will be on the lookout for pitching. Rotation help and general depth. Their top four returning starters — Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), CC Sabathia (knee), and David Phelps (elbow) — all have some kind of injury concern and the club needs to protect themselves. Expect them to kick the tires on everyone still available on the market, which includes basically every free agent pitcher.

One of those free agent pitchers is right-hander Justin Masterson, who will turn 30 in March. He had a miserable 2014 season with the Indians and Cardinals — St. Louis left him off their postseason roster — and is now looked at as something of a reclamation project. At this time last year he was considered a staff anchor who could fill any of the top three spots in a rotation on a given day. That is no longer the case. The Yankees need to add some certainty to their rotation, someone they can count on for innings, and Masterson may or may not fit the bill. Let’s look.

Up And Down Performance

Usually in this section I’ll put together a table with the player’s performance over the last three or four years, but with Masterson I think it’s best to post some graphs just to really drive home how up and down his performance has been the last few years. Check it out:

Masterson has alternated some really excellent seasons with some really awful seasons since his first full season as a starter in 2010. His strikeout rates have remained pretty much in line with the league average over the years while his ground ball rates have been consistently excellent, well above the league average and close to 60% of balls in play. As bad as 2014 was, he still had a 58.2% grounder rate. That’s as good as it gets.

Because he only has an average strikeout rate and is an extreme ground ball pitcher, Masterson’s success depends heavily on his infield defense. His batting average on balls in play has been consistently above .305 through his career with the exception of the 2013 season, when it was a career-low .285. Masterson’s walk rate shot up 11.7% this past season after sitting right around 9.5% from 2010-13, so he will walk some guys. More than anything, Masterson’s biggest problem is his vulnerability against left-handed pitchers. Check it out:

RHB wOBA RHB K% RHB BB% RHB GB% LHB wOBA LHP K% LHP BB% LHP GB%
2010 .307 22.8% 7.5% 62.6% .350 13.1% 10.4% 57.8%
2011 .259 22.8% 9.6% 61.0% .327 13.3% 5.3% 51.4%
2012 .277 23.3% 8.6% 59.0% .360 13.5% 10.5% 53.6%
2013 .238 32.0% 7.1% 63.6% .316 19.4% 10.9% 55.0%
2014 .332 25.5% 11.6% 63.1% .400 14.5% 11.7% 54.5%
Average .281 25.0% 8.8% 61.6% .347 14.8% 9.6% 54.3%

Overall, Masterson’s performance has gone up and down these last few years, and wouldn’t you know it? So has his performance against lefties. When he is reasonably effective against lefties — almost all of that success is BABIP-related too, his strikeout, walk, and grounder rates have remained fairly steady against left-handers over the years — he’s a very good pitcher overall. When not, well, he’s basically an average innings eater.

We’ll get to why Masterson dominates righties but struggles against lefties in a little bit when we look at his stuff, but for now we just need to know that he’s essentially a platoon pitcher. Yankee Stadium is not a good place to struggle against lefties because of the short right field porch, though Masterson’s grounder heavy ways would mitigate that somewhat. After more than 1,000 innings in the big leagues, improving against left-handers doesn’t seem like something that will just happen. The inability to consistently retire lefties is just something you’ll have to live with.

Stuff Breakdown

Masterson is a huge guy — he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 lbs. — yet he has a very low arm slot and releases the ball almost behind a righty batter, similar to Randy Johnson, just from the other side. Masterson’s delivery is all arms and legs too. Big leg kick, long arm action in the back, everything’s moving and whipping around. I can’t imagine he’s a comfortable at-bat, especially for same-side hitters. Check it out:

As you can see in the video, Masterson is a big time sinker/slider guy. He will mix in a few straight four-seamers per start but the sinker and slider have combined for approximately 70% of his pitches since becoming a full-time starter in 2010. Masterson doesn’t have a changeup at all — he threw five (five!) changeups in 2014 and has thrown only 47 changeups over the last four seasons. He’s a sinker/slider/four-seamer guy.

Between the utter lack of a changeup and the easy to see low arm slot, it’s no surprise Masterson has struggled against left-handed batters throughout his career. They can pick up the ball out of hands well and he doesn’t have a pitch to get them out. He basically has to hope they beat his sinker into the ground or come up empty against the slider. There’s nothing that moves away from lefties and keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat. At the same time, the sinker/slider/arm slot combo is hell on righties.

Both the sinker and slider have been above-average at getting both swings and misses and ground balls over the years — even in 2014 — while the four-seamer is very slightly below-average at both. From 2010-2013, the sinker/slider/four-seamer repertoire got the job done for Masterson and he was a quality MLB starter. That wasn’t the case this past season, and, probably not coincidentally, his velocity dropped off noticeably. From Brooks Baseball:

Justin Masterson velocity

Masterson’s average sinker velocity has gradually declined from 92.74 mph in 2011 to 89.68 mph in 2014, though the drops in four-seam fastball and slider velocity are much more drastic. Masterson’s four-seamer sat 94.11 mph in 2013 and 90.97 mph in 2014. The slider went from 83.67 mph to 82.05 mph from 2013-14. We’re talking about losing three miles an hour off the four-seamer and one and half miles an hour off the slider. That’s huge. So huge that I can’t help but wonder if something is physically wrong.

If you’re a team looking to sign Masterson, you almost have to hope he was either a mechanical mess this summer or was hiding some kind of minor injury. Something that explains the velocity loss because usually velocity doesn’t come back on its own unless there was a physical or mechanical problem. Masterson’s control isn’t good enough — just look at his walk rates in the graph above — to get by with reduced velocity. We saw it last year. Masterson with a low-90s sinker and mid-80s slider is a much different animal than Masterson with an upper-80s sinker and low-80s slider. The latter is far less effective.

Injury History

Masterson has been on the DL just once in his career, and it was for right knee inflammation this past July. A balky knee could explain the loss in velocity, especially since it is his push-off leg. He was out a little more than three weeks with the knee and was actually traded to the Cardinals while on the DL. Masterson had a 5.51 ERA (4.08 FIP) before the knee injury and a 7.04 ERA (5.84 FIP) after, so getting healthy didn’t help his performance.

Other than the knee, Masterson did miss three weeks with an oblique strain in September 2013, though the Indians never bothered to place him on the DL because rosters were expanded. So it’s really two DL worthy injuries in his career but only one actual DL stint. Masterson also had arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his left (non-pitching!) shoulder during the 2011-12 offseason. He was healthy in time for Spring Training and hasn’t had any problems since. Oblique strains happen. This knee issue is a much bigger concern. What caused the inflammation?

Contract Estimates

The Indians and Masterson discussed a contract extension last offseason. Jon Heyman said Masterson was reportedly looking for two or three years at $17M annually — considering his performance from 2010-13, that was a pretty damn reasonable contract demand — while the Tribe countered with a two-year pact worth $30M. The two sides broke off talks and now the consensus is Masterson is looking at a one-year contract to rebuild value.

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: One year at $9M.
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): One year at $7M.
  • Keith Law (subs. req’d): “If he’ll take $5 million a year and agree to work in relief, he’s good value, but if he wants starter money and a rotation job, I’m out.”

Did the Indians know Masterson’s stuff was about to decline and that’s why they didn’t meet his asking price? I don’t think we can rule it out, maybe they had some concern about his long-term outlook, but predicting a pitcher will lose three miles an hour off his fastball from one year to the next seems like something that can’t be done. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, Masterson’s looking at a one-year contract, probably in the $5M to $10M range.

Wrapping Up

The Yankees need to fill multiple rotation spots this winter after trading Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius. Going big for Max Scherzer or Jon Lester would be a huge help, but in the end those guys are still only filling one rotation spot. The club figures to scour the second and third tier of the pitching market and that’s where Masterson sits. In all likelihood he will only get a one-year contract, so he’s relatively low risk in that regard, but the velocity loss and career-long struggles against lefties make him high risk on the field. Even with the fallback of being reliever — Masterson’s pitched out of the bullpen before and been very effective — there’s a chance he’s just a bad pitcher now. It happens.

Looking at this from Masterson’s perspective, if he’s going to take a one-year contract to rebuild value, Yankee Stadium probably isn’t the best place to do it. Even as a ground ball pitcher. Most guys in his situation gravitate towards teams will bigger ballparks even though clubs nowadays are aware of park effects and can see through superficial stats like ERA. Big ballpark teams like the Twins, Marlins, Tigers, Giants, and Braves have all reportedly been in touch with Masterson so far this winter, so unless the Yankees really make it worth his while financially, the right-hander will probably head somewhere that is a little easier to pitch.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jon Lester

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even before trading Shane Greene to get Didi Gregorius, the Yankees needed rotation help. Now they really need rotation help. Their top five starters right now are (in whatever order) Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and probably Bryan Mitchell, at least until Ivan Nova returns from Tommy John surgery at midseason. Tanaka (elbow), Sabathia (knee), Pineda (shoulder), and Phelps (elbow) all landed on the DL this past season and their injury concerns will carry into 2015.

Along with Max Scherzer (Scouting the Market), one of the top two free agent starters available this offseason is ex-Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester, a legitimate ace who’s shown he has big market and postseason chops. The Yankees have insisted all winter they will not hand out another massive contract after getting burned by the Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez deals. One Yankees executive even went so far as to tell Joel Sherman that Lester’s “name never even comes up in discussions.”

That said, these are the Yankees, and they could change their mind and offer a market-busting contract at literally any moment. They’ve done it before and it’s a safe assumption they’ll do it again at some point. Lester has obviously been excellent through the first nine seasons of his career, but whichever team signs him won’t be getting those nine years, they’ll be getting the next six or seven or however many years of his career. Those figure to look quite a bit different than 2006-14 Lester. Is 2015-? Lester a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

High-End Performance

We’re all familiar with Lester. We’ve been watching him pitch against the Yankees multiple time every year for nearly a decade now. He’s excellent. I know it, you know it, we all know it. This section is just a formality, really. Here’s how Lester has pitched these last three seasons.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHP wOBA
2012 205.1 4.82 4.11 19.0% 7.8% 49.2% 13.9% 0.339 0.321
2013 213.1 3.75 3.59 19.6% 7.4% 45.0% 8.3% 0.317 0.294
2014 219.2 2.46 2.80 24.9% 5.4% 42.4% 7.2% 0.275 0.309
TOTAL 638.1 3.65 3.49 21.1% 6.9% 45.6% 9.5% 0.310 0.309

Lester had what as likely a career year in 2014, two years after having the worst year of his career. He was excellent this past season but the 2012-13 seasons weren’t anything special (4.28 ERA and 3.84 FIP).

Lester did rebound from that ugly 2012 season and that’s a positive. A lot of pitchers are unable to rebound after a rough season like that. Realistically, I think you sign Lester hoping you get the 2014 version in 2015 but expecting the overall 2012-14 version. That make sense? If you’re expecting six or seven years of 2014 Lester, you’ll be disappointed. That won’t happen.

Stuff Breakdown

Unlike, say, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, Lester is not a huge stuff guy from the left side. He’s not going to blow anyone away with fastballs or buckle knees with nasty breaking balls. He’s basically a three-pitch pitcher these days (four-seamer, cutter, curveball) who will throw two other pitches (sinker, changeup) a handful of times per start and nothing more. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here is Lester’s pitch selection over the years:

Jon Lester pitch selection

Between the four-seamer and cutter, Lester throws a fastball roughly 70% of the time nowadays. It works because he mixes the two pitches well and can locate them to both sides of the plate against lefties and righties. Chances are he’ll throw you a fastball for any given pitch, but good luck guessing whether it’ll be a four-seamer or a cutter, and where it’ll be located. It’s the Cliff Lee model — good but not great stuff that plays up because of location and unpredictability.

We’re going to get into Lester’s workload in a second, but he turns 31 next month and has thrown a lot of innings over the years. You knew that already. So, then, it’s no surprise his velocity declined across the board last season:

Jon Lester velocity

It’s not a huge decline but it is a decline. Lester’s four-seamer averaged 94.01 mph in 2013 and 93.15 mph in 2014. The cutter went from 90.66 to 88.88. The curveball went from 76.85 to 75.95. This is totally normal! Pitchers lose velocity as they age and Lester is probably going to lose even more velocity in the coming years. Lester’s release point has gradually dropped about three inches over the years as well …

Jon Lester release point

… and that’s also a normal part of the aging process. That’s the life of a pitcher over 30.

Lester showed he can pitch with the reduced velocity in 2014 and while it’s easy to think he’ll be able to adjust a la Andy Pettitte because he’s a command-based lefty, the fact is we don’t really know how or if he’ll adjust in the future. Whichever teams sign Lester will do so assuming he can adjust and remain effective, otherwise they wouldn’t give him six or seven or however many years.

Okay, so we know what Lester throws, how often he throws it, and how hard he throws it. Now let’s look at how effective these individual pitches are in terms of generating swings and misses and getting ground balls. With the help of Brooks Baseball once again, here are how Lester’s three main pitches rate at getting whiffs and grounders:

FB Whiff% FB GB% CT Whiff% CT GB% CB Whiff% CB GB%
2012 6.2% 36.6% 13.0% 47.3% 10.9% 48.2%
2013 6.7% 35.3% 11.2% 50.0% 9.4% 43.3%
2014 6.9% 29.3% 12.4% 48.1% 18.7% 52.6%
MLB AVG 6.9% 37.9% 9.7% 43.9% 11.1% 48.7%

Generally speaking, Lester’s four-seamer has been average at getting swings and misses and below-average at getting grounders while the cutter and curve have been above-average at getting both whiffs and grounders. The four-seam fastball is the worst of Lester’s three main offerings. The cutter and curveball are his moneymakers.

The Yankees have become a very cutter-happy organization in recent years. Phil Hughes added a cutter. David Robertson added a cutter. David Phelps and Adam Warren added cutters after being drafted. Sabathia’s been working to add a cutter. Manny Banuelos and Ian Clarkin both added cutters in the minors. Many teams shy away from the cut fastball — most famously, the Orioles took the cutter away from top prospect Dylan Bundy even though it’s his best pitch — but the Yankees embrace it, perhaps due to Mariano Rivera‘s success. Lester fits right in with the organizational philosophy.

Early-Career Workload

During his regular season career, Lester has thrown 1,596 innings through his age 30 season, the 35th most over the last 25 years. Pitch count data only goes back to the 2000 season, and since then, Lester’s 26,321 pitches through age 30 are the 16th most in baseball. Here’s the top 25 in regular season pitches before age 31 since that 2000 season via Baseball Reference:

Rank Player Pitches
1 CC Sabathia 37,026
2 Jon Garland 32,416
3 Felix Hernandez 31,478
4 Mark Buehrle 31,170
5 Carlos Zambrano 30,403
6 Barry Zito 30,198
7 Zack Greinke 29,955
8 Justin Verlander 29,116
9 Matt Cain 29,033
10 Cole Hamels 27,888
11 Javier Vazquez 27,506
12 Ervin Santana 26,846
13 Dan Haren 26,726
14 Edwin Jackson 26,509
15 Johan Santana 26,327
16 Jon Lester 26,321
17 Tim Lincecum 25,793
18 Brett Myers 25,763
19 Jake Peavy 25,662
20 Jeff Weaver 24,649
21 Roy Oswalt 24,250
22 Josh Beckett 24,234
23 Kyle Lohse 24,001
24 Scott Kazmir 23,889
25 John Lackey 23,828

It’s a shame we can’t go back any further, so this will have to do.

Now, obviously all pitches are not created equal. I’m guessing a higher percentage of Lester’s 26,321 pitches before age 30 were “stressful” than Zack Greinke’s 29,955. Lester was pitching in pressure packing AL East games the moment he got to the big leagues. Greinke didn’t play on a contender until he got to the Brewers in his age 27 season. Throwing a lot of pitches is generally bad. Throwing a lot of stressful pitches is worse. Lester’s thrown an awful lot of them in his career, I reckon.

By the way, of those 25 pitchers in the table above, I count only five (Garland, Johan, Myers, Beckett, Lackey) who had a substantial arm injury after their age 30 season. (Sabathia had knee trouble.) I wouldn’t think much of that though, there’s a lot of recency bias here. Most of those guys simply haven’t the chance to pitch at all much after the age of 30 yet, like Lester. Heck, Felix is still only 28.

Injury History

As you know, Lester overcame a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma earlier in his career. He was diagnosed in August 2006, underwent chemotherapy, and was declared cancer-free in November 2006. That’s obviously very serious and has to be noted. Lester’s been a horse since then and has done all sorts of wonderful charity stuff to benefit cancer research these last few years.

As for actual baseball injuries, Lester has been on the DL just once, for a lat strain in July 2011. He missed 19 days and hasn’t had any trouble since. Lester missed a start with a hamstring strain in 2012 and missed another start with a hip strain in 2013. That’s his injury history right there. No arm problems whatsoever and no other significant injuries. The best predictor of future injuries is past injuries and Lester’s been very healthy since become a full-time big leaguer in 2007.

Contract Estimates

Because he was traded at midseason, the Athletics could not make Lester the qualifying offer and therefore he will not cost a draft pick to sign, unlike Scherzer. Giving up a draft pick is a minor consideration when you’re talking about elite players, but signing Lester and being able to keep your first rounder is pretty cool. Here are some contract estimates:

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: Six years, $132M. ($22M AAV)
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): Six years, $138M. ($23M AAV)
  • MLB Trade Rumors: “Lester should command at least the six years and $147MM Greinke received two years ago, and potentially more.” ($24.5M AAV)

According to Jon Heyman, Lester already has several offers in the $130M to $140M range, though the Red Sox are in a bit lower than that. The Cubs, Dodgers, and Braves are also said to be involved to some extent. I’m sure other clubs are in the mix as well. One executive told Ken Rosenthal that Lester is going to wind up with seven years — “Book it,” said the exec — and that makes sense to me. If Lester’s sitting on a bunch of six-year offers, it’s probably only a matter of time before a team gets desperate and offers that seventh guaranteed year, which will be the separator.

It’s worth noting that when Sabathia signed his initial seven-year, $161M deal with the Yankees, he was only 28. Greinke was 28 when he signed with the Dodgers and Hamels was 28 when he signed his six-year, $144M extension with the Phillies. Lester turns 31 in a few weeks and we’re talking about a difference of three peak years and that’s significant. Cliff Lee had just turned 32 when he signed his five-year, $120M deal with the Phillies. That might be a more appropriate contract comparison for Lester than Greinke and Hamels.

Of course, the market is going to determine Lester’s contract, not what similar-aged pitchers received the last few years. There’s so much money in the game these days and so few elite players to spend it on. Lester is well-positioned to get at least six years and I do think it’ll end up getting seven years when it’s all said and done — maybe a six-year deal with a seventh year vesting option? — probably with an average annual value north of $24M. That’s the market. Even with offense hard to find, aces come at a premium.

Wrapping Up

So, long story short, Lester is very good and healthy. He’s a big guy — listed 6-foot-4 and 240 lbs. — with two solidly above-average pitches in his cutter and curveball even though his overall velocity is starting to disappear. There’s an awful lot to like here. It goes without saying Lester would be an immense help to the 2015 Yankees, but, at the same time, I have a tough time overlooking all the aces — Sabathia, Cain, Verlander, Lincecum, etc. — who’ve suddenly fallen apart with little to no warning recently.

If the Yankees do decide to reverse course and spend big on a free agent, few targets make as much sense as Lester. I don’t just mean this offseason either, few free agent starters offer this kind of pedigree. There has not yet been any indication the Yankees are going to get seriously involved in the Lester market, but, as I said earlier, that could change in a heartbeat. Personally, I think they should focus on smaller additions to upgrade as many roster spots as possible, but adding someone of Lester’s caliber is never bad move.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Everth Cabrera

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The non-tender deadline came and went on Tuesday, and all told a total of 32 new free agents hit the market, including Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, and David Huff. Most of those 32 players are fringy Quad-A types or bench players who were slated to make too much money through arbitration. That’s the case every year. The non-tender deadline is more exciting in our heads than in reality.

Anyway, one of the most interesting players non-tendered earlier this week is shortstop Everth Cabrera, who was cut loose by the Padres. He’s interesting only because he’s still relatively young (turned 28 last month), he once led the NL in stolen bases (44 in 48 attempts in 2012), and because he’s a shortstop (the Yankees need a shortstop). When someone like Cabrera hits a market in which the best available shortstops are Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jed Lowrie, yeah he’s worth investigating. Let’s see if he makes sense for the Yankees.

Offense, If That’s What You Want To Call It

Cabrera’s backstory is pretty interesting. He’s one of only 23 players in history from Nicaragua — only Marvin Bernard has more career plate appearances among Nicaraguan-born players — and the Padres originally acquired him from the Rockies in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft. He stuck too. San Diego gave Cabrera 438 plate appearances as a 22-year-old in 2009 even though he had only four career games above Low Class-A — all four at High-A, so he essentially jumped from Low-A to MLB — and the results were actually pretty good all things considered: .255/.342/.361 (95 wRC+) with 25 steals.

Since he stuck as a Rule 5 pick and the Padres controlled his rights, they took advantage and had Cabrera spend most of the 2010-11 seasons in the minors for more seasoning. He didn’t return to the big leagues for good until 2012. They were pretty patient with him. Here’s what Cabrera has done in his three full seasons since returning to MLB:

PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BABIP K% BB% SB (SB%) wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs.LHP
2012 449 .246 .324 .324 87 .336 24.5% 9.6% 44 (92%) 102 47
2013 435 .283 .355 .381 114 .337 15.9% 9.4% 37 (76%) 90 169
2014 391 .232 .272 .300 65 .294 22.0% 5.1% 18 (69%) 59 84
TOTAL 1,275 .254 .319 .335 89 .323 20.8% 8.2% 99 (80%) 84 103

The 2013 season went pretty well — Cabrera was San Diego’s token All-Star* that year — but 2012 and 2014 were pretty bad. Cabrera is a switch-hitter who hasn’t done a whole lot against right-handed pitchers, meaning he wouldn’t even be on the heavy side of the platoon. He has zero power — he’s hit 21 homers in 3,522 career plate appearances between MLB and the minors — but that’s not his game, he’s a speedy leadoff type who steals bases, and he’s been quite good at stealing bases.

In fact, Cabrera has been one of the game’s most valuable base-runners over the last three years. That’s not just stealing bases either, I’m talking about going first-to-third on a single, scoring from first on a double, advancing on wild pitches, the whole nine. FanGraphs’ base-running stats say he’s been worth 16.0 runs on the bases since 2012, tenth most among the 223 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that time. He’s right behind noted base-runner Elvis Andrus (16.4 base-running runs) in 800 fewer plate appearances. Running the bases isn’t the most valuable thing in the world — 16.0 runs is about a win and half spread across three years — but it is Cabrera’s elite skill.

Everth’s best year at the plate came when he cut his strikeout rate by about one-third, though his swing rates on pitches both in and out of the zone were right in line with his career averages. His contact rates — 92.9% in the zone and 71.0% out of the zone — were much higher than his career averages (89.8% and 92.9%, respectively), however. That success could be attributed to some swing adjustments he made in Spring Training. Here are some details from Corey Brock back in March 2013:

“It’s more of a shorter, direct path to the ball,” manager Bud Black said of Cabrera. “It’s trying to keep the ball out of the air. He needs to work on line drive, down. That’s his challenge.”

“He and [hitting coach Phil Plantier] have been working real hard on his swing this winter,” Black said. “Everth spent a lot of time in Los Angeles working at a performance center. Then he would drive down to Phil’s house and work in his backyard.”

According to Brock, the focus of the work was on Cabrera’s right-handed swing, and it showed in his performance against left-handed pitchers that year (169 wRC+). That success didn’t carry over into 2014 and his production from the left side of the plate has been trending downward as well. There is some tangible evidence suggesting the improved contact rates in 2013 weren’t a fluke, though it’s unclear why Cabrera was unable to repeat that success this past season.

For what it’s worth, Cabrera has done a very good job of slapping the ball on the ground and using his speed the last three years — his 65.6% ground ball rate since 2012 is the second highest in baseball behind Ben Revere (64.3%). (Derek Jeter is third at 65.5%, by the way.) That’s his game. It hasn’t turned into results outside of 2013, however. You have to really squint your eyes and hope Cabrera suddenly improves his contract rates again to see him as even a league-average hitter going forward. The base-running is nice, but that alone isn’t enough to keep a player in the lineup.

In The Field

Cabrera has spent very limited time at second base (80 innings) and third base (two innings) in his MLB career. He did start his career in the minors at second base before sliding over to shortstop full-time once he got to the Padres, where he’s been ever since. Here’s what the four main defensive systems say about Everth’s work in the field these last three years:

Innings at SS DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2012 915.1 -4 -5.0 -11 7.0
2013 847.2 -3 -1.1 4 0.7
2014 804.0 -3 -4.8 1 1.4
TOTAL 2,567.0 -10 -10.9 -6 9.1

Mostly negative. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the exact numbers. The consensus seems to be that Cabrera was a bit below-average in the field these last three years. That’s enough detail for me. The only scouting report I can find about Cabrera’s defense comes from way back in 2009, when Baseball America ranked him as the 24th best prospect in San Diego’s system. “Cabrera … seamlessly shifted across the bag during the second half of 2008, showing solid range and arm strength at short,” said the write-up. That’s all we’ve got.

As sketchy as they are, the defensive stats are much more recent than Baseball America’s scouting report, so I trust them more. I think we have to say Cabrera is a below-average defender right now. The evidence points in that direction.

Injury History

Staying on the field has been a challenge for Cabrera over the years. Here’s a recap of everything that sent him to the disabled list since his MLB debut in 2009:

  • 2009: Broken hamate in left wrist, suffered on a hit-by-pitch. Out 60 days.
  • 2010: Two right hamstring strains. Out 49 total days.
  • 2011: Broken hamate in right wrist, out 47 days. Left shoulder subluxation, out 33 days.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Left hamstring strain, out 17 days.
  • 2014: Two left hamstring strains. Out 78 total days.

That’s an awful lot of injuries, and, as serious as the two wrist fractures and shoulder problem are, the continued hamstring issues scary me the most. Cabrera is a speed first player who needs his legs to be valuable. If they are starting to be compromised by injury, he’ll become unrosterable in a hurry. He needs his legs to be healthy to contribute. That’s not up for debate.

Off-the-Field Issues

This is where it really starts to get ugly. Cabrera’s had numerous off-the-field problems and run-ins with the law these last few years. Here’s a recap:

  • June 2012: Arrested for domestic violence. The case was eventually dismissed.
  • August 2013: Suspended 50 games for his ties to Biogenesis. He admitted to taking an undisclosed banned substance to help get healthy after the 2011 shoulder injury after the suspension was announced.
  • September 2014: Arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana and was later charged with resisting arrest. The case is still pending.

Performance-enhancing drugs are bad but the Biogenesis stuff is the least bad thing in Cabrera’s history. Even though the case was dismissed, domestic violence is not something to brush under the rug, especially since MLB hopes to have a domestic violence policy in place by next season. The resisting arrest charge is still pending too. That carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail if he’s found guilty.

Teams are willing to overlook this sort of stuff if you’re a star player, they’ve shown that time and time again, but a fringe player like Cabrera? He’s probably not worth the headache. The Yankees were all about second chances under George Steinbrenner, most notably signing Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, but those guys were former stars. Not borderline big leaguers.

Contract Situation

Cabrera earned $2.45M this past season, his second of four trips through arbitration as a Super Two. MLBTR projected him to make $2.9M through arbitration in 2015. Cabrera will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2016 before becoming eligible for free agency during the 2016-17 offseason.

Wrapping Up

After non-tendering Cabrera earlier this week, new Padres GM A.J. Preller told Jeff Sanders the team won’t try to re-sign him and it was “pretty much a move that (means) we’re going in a different direction.” They opted to cut Cabrera loose rather than pay him a modest $2.9M next year even though he’s a shortstop and shortstops are really hard to find.

The speed and the fact that he’s on the right side of 30 make Cabrera interesting, but aside from his base-running, there’s not a whole lot to like here. He’d have to improve his contact rates to provide more offense and, well, that’s really hard to do. Cabrera can run and that’s wonderful, but he doesn’t hit much, isn’t great in the field, doesn’t stay healthy, and has a police record. That’s … not really a guy I want on my team.

The Yankees have emphasized strong makeup and character the last few years now and that leads me to believe they’ll steer clear of Cabrera even though they really need a shortstop. My guess is he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract somewhere and impress in Spring Training just to stick around as a team’s Triple-A shortstop come April. I would be very surprised if a team guaranteed him a roster spot this winter.

* Fun Fact: A Padre has not actually played in the All-Star Game since Heath Bell faced one batter in the 2011 Midsummer Classic.