Scouting The Trade Market: Aaron Hill

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Over the last few years the Yankees have made a habit of bringing in low cost, potentially washed up veterans late in the offseason to see if they can strike gold. Sometimes it works (Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez), sometimes it doesn’t (Vernon Wells). Such is life. With a one open bench spot — and a backup third baseman in theory only — the Yankees could make a similar move in the coming weeks.

One apparently washed up veteran who could be a fit for that open bench spot is Diamondbacks infielder Aaron Hill, who Jon Heyman says is on the trade block. Arizona wants to move him because they have a younger and better option in Brandon Drury. Hill hasn’t been good for two years now, but he could have something left to offer in a limited role as the 25th man on the roster. Should the Yankees be interested? Let’s see.

The Performance

Like I said, Hill has not been very good the last two seasons. He hit .244/.287/.367 (78 wRC+) with ten home runs in 541 plate appearances in 2014, then followed it up by hitting .230/.295/.345 (71 wRC+) with six home runs in 353 trips to the plate last season. Yikes. That’s a .238/.290/.359 (75 wRC+) batting line in his last 894 plate appearances.

The last time Hill was actually good was the 2013 season, when he hit .291/.356/.462 (124 wRC+) with 11 homers in 362 plate appearances. Interestingly, Hill pulled the ball much more often that season than he has the last two years. Check it out:

Aaron Hill batted balls

Hill’s soft and hard contact rates have held fairly steady the last four years and they’ve been better than average as well. (League averages are 18.6 Soft% and 28.6 Hard%.) The drop in pull rate is the biggest difference — Hill’s ground ball and fly ball rates have stayed in the same range the last few seasons — which could be an indication his bat is slowing. He might not be able to get around on the ball as quickly as he once did.

At the very least, you’d want someone in what would be Hill’s role to be able to hit pitchers of the opposite hand. He’s a right-handed batter, and, well, his numbers against lefties the last few seasons are not good at all.

Aaron Hill lefties

Hill actually hit righties (77 wRC+) better than lefties (58 wRC+) last season. And man, those walk and strikeout rates are bad news. They’re both going in the wrong direction.

It’s not even clear Hill is a potential platoon candidate at this point. Not great! Second basemen have been known to completely fall off a cliff in their early-30s, and it looks like that may have happened with Hill. Two years ago he was incredibly productive. The last two seasons have been a total disaster.

The Defense

Like most big league second baseman, Hill came up through the minors as a shortstop before shifting to the other side of the bag. He was a full-time second baseman from 2007-13 before the D-Backs stopped playing him everyday in the second half of 2014 because he stopped hitting. Hill has played a little over 1,350 innings at second base and roughly 350 innings at third base the last two years.

The defensive stats were always split on Hill at second base. UZR liked him there while DRS said he was below-average, for example. Based on the eye test, he seemed solid at second, not great but not a liability either. The stats are also split on his work at third base in that tiny sample. Point is, Hill is not some kind of standout gloveman like, say, Juan Uribe. He’s also not unplayable like Pedro Alvarez. You can run him out there at second and third bases on occasion and he won’t kill you.

Injury History

Hill doesn’t have any significant long-term injury concerns like, say, Alex Rodriguez‘s hips. He missed a few games last September with a hamstring pull and missed two months in 2013 when he took a pitch to the hand and broke a bone. Otherwise Hill has dealt with nothing more than random day-to-day stuff the last few seasons. A tight hammy, jammed fingers from sliding into a base, that sort of stuff.

Contract Status

The D’Backs gave Hill a three-year extension worth $35M back in February 2013 — he had one year left on his current deal at the time, so they tacked another three years on top of it — and so far that deal has been a disaster. It started in 2014. Woof. Hill is owed $12M next season, the final year on that contract. He’ll be a free agent next winter.

What Would It Take?

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

I don’t know what it would take, but I do know what it should take: almost nothing. An Aaron Hill trade should be similar to the Vernon Wells trade in that the acquiring team gives up nothing in particular and takes on a little bit of cash. The Yankees ate 25% of the money owed to Wells in that trade, and 25% of the money owed to Hill is $3M. Even that seems a little pricey. The D’Backs are in no position to demand something of value for Hill. They’re looking to shed as much of his contract as possible. That’s all.

Wrapping Up

There’s very little to like about Hill at this point of his career, right? He hasn’t hit in two years — not even lefties! — and while his defense is acceptable, it’s not enough to make up for the expected lack of offense. Plus he’s expensive. Hill would fill a need as a backup third baseman, but so what? He’s been so bad.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling the Yankees might have some interest in Hill. They have a history of rolling the dice on veterans who looked to be done by sticking them in part-time roles, and Hill does fill a need and have a history of righty pop. And he’s familiar with the AL East from his days in Toronto. I feel like that can only help him.

In all likelihood, no, the Yankees will not pursue Hill, even though he figures to come so insanely cheap it would be close to a no risk move. If he stinks, cut him and move on. The D’Backs can’t expect actual prospects and/or significant salary relief in return. I don’t see much upside in Hill, even in a part-time role, but I’ve said that about several other veterans who have gone on to be productive in pinstripes.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Tyler Clippard

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

It is now the middle of January, and several big name free agents remain unsigned. The market has picked up in recent days (Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Ian Kennedy, etc.) but there are still several quality players on the board. Thirteen of MLBTR’s top 50 free agents are still unsigned as of this writing, including three of the top 20.

One of those 13 players is former Yankee Tyler Clippard, who was involved in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. The Yankees shipped him to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo in December 2007. Clippard went on to become an elite reliever while Albaladejo gave the Yankees 59.1 replacement level innings before being released in 2010. Not Brian Cashman‘s finest moment.

The Yankees improved the back-end of their bullpen by replacing Justin Wilson with Aroldis Chapman, but the middle innings did take a hit with the trade of Adam Warren. The club has a ton of internal candidates for the open bullpen spots, though outside of Chasen Shreve, none have had much MLB success in their careers. Could Clippard be part of the middle innings solution? Let’s look.

The Performance

Clippard, now 30, spent the 2008 season in the minors with the Nationals before breaking out as a reliever in 2009. From 2009-14 he led all relievers in innings (by a lot) and ranked sixth in WAR. Clippard was a high-leverage workhorse. Here’s what he’s done the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 71.0 2.41 3.82 26.6% 8.7% 1.14 .240 .232
2014 70.1 2.18 2.75 29.5% 8.3% 0.64 .191 .292
2015 71.0 2.92 4.28 21.3% 10.3% 1.01 .327 .211

Clippard is a proven FIP beater. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2009 he has a 2.68 ERA and a 3.52 FIP in 524.2 innings. It’s not an accident. Clippard has demonstrated the ability to outperform his peripherals over a period of several years now.

How has he done it? By being an extreme fly ball pitcher who excels at getting hitters to pop the ball up on the infield. Clippard’s career ground ball rate is 27.9%, the second lowest among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 innings since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Chris Young is the lowest at 26.4%.) His 15.6% infield pop-up rate is third highest during that time, behind Mariano Rivera (16.1%) and Al Leiter (15.7%).

Infield pop-ups are as close to an automatic out as it gets for balls in play. For much of his career Clippard has had an excellent strikeout rate and an excellent pop-up rate. Those are the two best possible outcomes for a pitcher. It’s no wonder why he’s been so successful. That’s a great formula.

Now, that said, Clippard’s strikeout rate took a big step back last season. He struck out close to 30% of batters faced the last few years before dropping down to a league average-ish strikeout rate in 2015. That’s kinda scary. Furthermore, his fly ball and pop-up rate declined as well.

BABIP GB% FB% LD% IFFB% HR/FB%
2013 .170 27.9% 55.8% 16.3% 18.8% 9.4%
2014 .251 36.9% 49.4% 13.7% 19.3% 6.0%
2015 .211 21.2% 60.6% 18.2% 13.3% 6.7%

The super low BABIP is the result of all the pop-ups. (His career BABIP is .232.) Last season Clippard posted a career high fly ball rate and his lowest pop-up rate in five years, which means more of those fly balls were traveling to the outfield. His HR/FB% didn’t spike, but he was giving up way more fly balls, hence the jump from a 0.64 HR/9 in 2014 to a 1.01 HR/9 in 2015.

There are some definite red flags here. Clippard’s strikeout and infield pop-up rates dropped while his walk rate increased. That’s bad, especially for a guy who’s endured such a big workload. It suggests Clippard wasn’t fooling hitters as well as he has the last few seasons. Right now this is just a one year sample. Whoever signs him will hope it isn’t the start of a trend.

The Stuff

Clippard has more or less shelved his little cutter/slider in recent years, so he’s now basically a two-pitch pitcher: low-90s heater and a split-changeup hybrid right around 80 mph. That split-change has helped him neutralize lefties throughout his career. No one has bothered to make a 2015 Clippard highlight video, so here’s a really short video from late-July:

It’s important to note Clippard has tremendous deception in his delivery, which helps his stuff play up. You can see it in the video — he’s all arms and legs (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 lbs.), and he hides the ball very well. The radar gun says 91-92 mph but hitters seem to react like it’s 95-96. That deception is a big reason why he’s been so good.

The only significant red flag in Clippard’s stuff is the swing-and-miss rate on his split-change, which dropped to 15.3% last season after sitting around 21.0% from 2012-14. That’s still an above-average whiff rate — the average whiff rate on changeups is 14.9% — but it’s not nearly as good as before. Clippard’s velocity has held fairly steady over the years too.

Watching him pitch over the years, I think Clippard’s biggest problem last season was his location. His stuff seemed good enough, he just had trouble throwing to the desired target. His first pitch strike rate dropped to 55.8% after sitting closer to 63.0% for a few years, so he was behind in the count more often, which could explain the diminished the effectiveness of his split-change.

Injury History

This will be short: Clippard has never been on the DL. He missed one game with lower back tightness in September, and way back in 2011 he missed three games with what was described as shoulder fatigue. Clippard’s had no arm problems since and he’s never had any kind of significant injury in general.

Contract Projections

I have to think Clippard and his agent came into the offseason hoping for an Andrew Miller contract. Clippard’s been an elite reliever for a few years now, so he has the track record, and he’s been durable. That’s probably the best case scenario, but the free agent reliever market stunk this winter, and Clippard was arguably the biggest name.

The only contract estimate we have for Clippard comes from MLBTR. They pegged him for three years and $18M. Five relievers have signed contracts of at least three years this offseason: Shawn Kelley (three years, $15M), Tony Sipp (three years, $18M), Ryan Madson (three years, $22M), Joakim Soria (three years, $25M), and Darren O’Day (four years, $32M). I have to think Clippard’s holding out for at least three years, right?

Things have been extremely quite around Clippard this winter. His archive at MLBTR includes only six posts since the start of November, and three are blurbs mentioning the Mets are open to re-signing him to a one-year contract. That’s all. I’m sure there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, but geez, very little public interest in Clippard.

Wrapping Up

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

I’m mentioning Clippard as a possible target because there has been so little interest in him this offseason. Spring Training is only a month away and he might be more open to a one or two-year contract. The Yankees aren’t going to spend big on a free agent, that much is clear, but what if Clippard will take a one-year deal at $5M or so? Or a two-year deal at $10M with an opt-out?

The Yankees do have three open bullpen spots as it is — it could be four come Opening Day if Aroldis Chapman is suspended — and Clippard would give the team some quality middle relief depth. I do think the declining strikeout, walk, and pop-up rates are a sign of decline more than a one-year blip, but on a low cost contract, it’s worth the chance. Clippard could be a real difference maker.

At the same time, if Clippard is open to a low cost deal, why would he come to the Yankees? Yankee Stadium and the AL East is not a place for pitchers looking to build value on short-term deals, especially not fly ball pitchers. And Clippard’s not oblivious, he knows he would be no better than fourth on the bullpen depth chart behind Chapman, Miller, and Dellin Betances.

Clippard is a potential fit for the Yankees but the Yankees are not a fit for Clippard. If he’s going to take a relatively small contract, he’s going to go somewhere with a big ballpark and where he’d be no worse than the primary setup man. There are still way too many clubs in need of bullpen help right now to think Clippard’s price has dropped so low that he’d settle for an undesirable situation in the Bronx.

Scouting The Trade Market: Tyler Skaggs

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

For much of the winter the Yankees have been looking for a young controllable starter, so much so that Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller have been dangled in trade talks. They have not yet acquired such a pitcher, but I don’t think it’s been due to a lack of effort. The Yankees are looking. They just haven’t found anything that makes sense.

The Angels, who hired former Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler to be their new GM earlier this offseason, are one of the few teams with starting pitching depth. The club needs another bat and they don’t want to exceed the luxury tax threshold — they have about $12M in wiggle room after projected arbitration raises — making a big free agent signing unlikely. Trading a starter for a bat has been mentioned as a possibility.

Understandably, Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney are as close to off limits as it gets. Neither Jered Weaver nor C.J. Wilson make sense for the Yankees, ditto Hector Santiago, albeit to a lesser extent. That leaves Matt Shoemaker (blah), Nick Tropeano (already discussed), and lefty Tyler Skaggs. Does Skaggs make any sense for the pitching needy Yankees? Let’s look.

The Performance

Let’s start with some background. Skaggs, 24, was a supplemental first round pick (40th overall) out of a Santa Monica high school back in 2009. The Angels traded him to the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren deal in 2010, then re-acquired him from Arizona in the Mark Trumbo trade in 2013. Baseball America ranked Skaggs as a top 15 global prospect in both 2012 (No. 13) and 2013 (No. 12).

Skaggs received cups of coffee with the D’Backs in 2012 and 2013 before opening the 2014 season in Anaheim’s rotation. He made 18 starts before blowing out his elbow that July, ending his season. Skaggs had Tommy John surgery shortly thereafter and hasn’t pitched since. Since his big league time was limited in both 2012 and 2013, let’s focus on his 2014 performance, the only time he held a regular rotation spot.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 Opp. wOBA
vs. RHB 91 3.54 18.9% 6.6% 51.7% 0.69 .292
vs. LHB 22 3.59 17.2% 6.1% 44.6% 0.82 .326
Overall 113 4.30 3.55 18.5% 6.5% 50.1% 0.72 .299

Pretty good! It doesn’t knock your socks off, but Skaggs was 22 years old for most of those 113 innings, and when a 22-year-old southpaw does something like that, it’s pretty exciting. He limited walks, missed a fair amount of bats, got a bunch of grounders, and kept the ball in the park. Very nice.

There was nothing that made you think Skaggs’ elbow was about to give out before his injury. He allowed one run in 5.2 innings against the Tigers in the start prior to getting hurt, and in the actual start when he blew out, Skaggs had struck out seven in 4.2 no-hit innings against the Orioles. He threw a pitch, called for the trainer, and walked off the mound. That was it.

Prior to getting hurt, Skaggs showed an awful lot of promise and was arguably the second best pitcher in Anaheim’s rotation behind Richards. He was a high-end prospect who was starting to deliver on the hype. When that happens, it’s pretty fun to watch.

The Stuff

Skaggs was a four-pitch pitcher before getting hurt. He averaged 93 mph with both his two and four-seam fastballs, topping out at 96. Skaggs also threw a sharp upper-70s curveball that was his calling card as a prospect. It’s the pitch that got him drafted so high. He also has a mid-80s changeup. Here’s video of the kid in action:

The delivery looks fine to me, right? Some guys have Tommy John surgery and you can tell why — their deliveries are all herky jerky. I don’t think that is the case with Skaggs. It’s pretty simple. You can tell he’s a good athlete. Skaggs seems to be fully in control of his body while delivering the baseball.

The Angels worked with Skaggs to develop a cutter, though he didn’t take to the pitch at all. He threw maybe one or two a start before blowing out his elbow. That’s it. Skaggs is a four-pitch pitcher even without the cutter, and both the changeup and curveball give him good weapons against right-handed batters.

Here’s some more information on Skaggs’ arsenal from 2014, his only regular action in the show. League averages are in parentheses:

% Thrown Avg. Velo Whiff % GB%
Four-Seamer 37.9% 92.9 (91.9) 7.3% (6.9%) 37.8% (37.9%)
Two-Seamer 27.4% 92.8 (91.3) 6.1% (5.4%) 52.1% (49.5%)
Curveball 24.3% 77.5 (77.3) 13.1% (11.1%) 68.1% (48.7%)
Changeup 9.4% 85.1 (83.3) 16.1% (14.9%) 58.6% (47.8%)

Across the board, Skaggs’ pitches were more or less average at getting swings and misses. He didn’t have a knockout pitch with a 20% whiff rate or anything like that. At the same time, getting an average-ish amount of empty swings with four different pitches is pretty darn good. Both his curveball and changeup were good ground ball pitches while the fastballs were average. Nothing really sexy there, but it’s effective. Four average or better pitches is rock solid.

In addition to the impressive raw stuff, Skaggs has drawn praise for some of the less than obvious aspects of pitching. Here’s what Baseball America (subs. req’d) had to say back in 2013, the last time Skaggs was prospect-eligible:

Skaggs also stands out for his composure on the mound and his idea of what he needs to do with each hitter. He holds runners well with a strong pickoff move, permitting just five steals in eight attempts last year. He didn’t give up a single stolen base in his six major league starts and he uses his athleticism to field his position well.

That stuff is easy to overlook but it matters. Skaggs has four quality pitches, an ostensibly good delivery, and he does the little things well like hold runners and field his position. It’s no wonder this guy was once considered one of the best prospects in baseball.

Injury History

Like I said, Skaggs has not pitched since having Tommy John surgery in August 2014, which is a big deal. The Angels have taken it slow with his rehab, so Skaggs is going to go about 20 months between surgery and pitching in regular season games. His rehab is going well though — Eppler told Mike DiGiovanna that Skaggs threw a six-inning, 90-pitch bullpen session in early-December and “was getting after it.”

Elbow reconstruction is obviously the most serious injury in Skaggs’ career. He did also miss a month with a hamstring strain in June 2014, and during his minor league days he missed a start in 2012 with a sore shoulder, but that’s it. The shoulder has given him no trouble since and while the hamstring sucks, it was only a hamstring. Players pull them from time to time. The biggest concern is the Tommy John surgery and the fact he hasn’t pitched in a competitive game in 17 months now.

Contract Status

Skaggs currently has two years and 66 days of service time. That means he has four years of team control remaining: one as a pre-arbitration player and then three of arbitration-eligibility. As best I can tell, Skaggs has two minor league options remaining, which is good. If he needs more time to shake off the rust following Tommy John surgery, his team can send him to Triple-A for more reps. Roughly 78 days in the minors would delay Skaggs’ free agency another year.

What Would It Take?

The Tommy John surgery makes it very tough to gauge Skaggs’ trade value. As I mentioned when I examined Alex Wood last week, pitchers like Shelby Miller, Gio Gonzalez, and Jake Arrieta have been traded when they were four years from free agency in recent years. None were coming off Tommy John surgery. Miller and Gonzalez were good and healthy while Arrieta was very bad with close to zero MLB success at the time of his trade. Skaggs fits into none of those buckets.

Players can be traded while injured — the Braves acquired Max Fried, Chris Withrow, and Bronson Arroyo while they were rehabbing from Tommy John surgery last year, for example — as long as the commissioner approves, which is never really an issue. That part isn’t a problem. It’s properly valuing Skaggs, who was very good when healthy but hasn’t been healthy in a year and a half now. Hard to think the Angels would get maximum value for him at this point.

Wrapping Up

Skaggs is pretty much everything the Yankees look for these days. Young and talented? Check. Tall — he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs. on the team’s official site — power pitcher with a history of limiting walks and getting grounders? Also check. A chance to buy low because of injury or poor performance or something else (coughChapmancough)? Another check. He fits!

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

The Tommy John surgery is an obvious and serious red flag. Skaggs’ stuff may never bounce back all the way, or it could take longer than expected to get back to 100%, or he could continue to have elbow problems. I know elbow reconstruction has become pretty routine, but it’s still a big risk. That has to be factored into the evaluation and price. It’s easy to assume Skaggs will bounce back and be fine, but man, you never know until you see it happen.

The Gardner for Skaggs framework seems to work, in theory. The Yankees would get their young controllable starter, albeit one coming off a major injury. The Angels would get their much-needed left fielder, one who would help balance their righty heavy lineup and also hit leadoff, allowing Kole Calhoun to move into a more traditional run-producing lineup spot. Both teams would be dealing from a position of depth to address a need.

The Yankees could always kick in some cash to offset Gardner’s salary, allowing the Angels to steer clear of the luxury tax. There’s also the potential to expand this as well. The Angels could use a second baseman and the Yankees have a spare Rob Refsnyder lying around. The Yankees need a backup third baseman/utility guy and the Halos have Kyle Kubitza, who may or may not be expendable.

Either way, these two clubs appear to match up well for a trade. The Angels have an obvious need for a player like Gardner and the Yankees are in perpetual search of a young starter. Whether the two sides — specifically Brian Cashman and Eppler, his former top lieutenant — can agree to a deal is another matter. The Angels might not want to sell low on Skaggs, which is understandable. Even after surgery, he’s worth a shot if Eppler does make him available.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Juan Uribe

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

It is entirely possible the Yankees are done making moves this offseason. They have a full lineup, a full rotation, more than enough bodies for the bullpen, and three-fourths of a bench. The team has some internal candidates for that final bench spot, and really, how they fill that spot will depend on Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third. He hasn’t manned the hot corner aside from a handful of games back in rookie ball.

Castro is still relatively new to second base — he only played 258 innings at second last season — and asking him to learn third base as well might be too much, too soon. Using that final bench spot for a proper backup third baseman sure seems like a good idea, no? Veteran infielder Juan Uribe remains available as a free agent and is a candidate to provide depth at third as well as another right-handed bat. Let’s see if he makes sense for the Yankees.

The Offense

A few years ago it looked like Uribe was done. Like done done. The now 36-year-old hit .204/.264/.293 (56 wRC+) with the Dodgers in 2011, then followed it up by hitting .191/.258/.284 (52 wRC+) in 2012. Yikes. The Dodgers were on the verge of releasing Uribe early in 2013, though he rebounded that season to hit .278/.331/.438 (116 wRC+), reviving his career. Here are his three most recent seasons.

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR K% BB% wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs. LHP
2013 426 .278/.331/.438 116 12 19.0% 7.0% 115 118
2014 404 .311/.337/.440 121 9 19.1% 3.7% 125 106
2015 397 .253/.320/.417 104 14 20.2% 8.6% 90 146
Total 1,227 .281/.329/.432 114 35 19.4% 6.4% 110 124

After spending the 2013-14 seasons with the Dodgers, Uribe split the 2015 season with the Dodgers, Braves, and Mets. The Dodgers sent him to Atlanta in a very weird trade — the primary piece they got back was up-and-down lefty Ian Thomas — then the Braves shipped him to the Mets at the trade deadline for actual prospects. The Mets grabbed Uribe to beef up their bench down the stretch.

Uribe faced left-handers primarily after landing with the Mets last season, hence the massive platoon split. He simply didn’t play a whole lot against righties. Given his age, I’m not sure you could realistically expect Uribe to be a regular against same-side pitchers at this point of his career. Sure, he might be able to do it once in a while, but it’s not the best idea. I’m guessing most view Uribe as a righty platoon bat going forward.

Generally speaking, Uribe has some pop against southpaws (.209 ISO from 2013-15) and he tends to draw more walks (8.4%) against them as well. He doesn’t provide much value on the bases — Uribe has attempted eight steals over the last three years and he’s taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) only 37% of the time, below the 41% league average — so his offensive value comes exclusively from his bat. That’s fine. That makes him like most other players.

Uribe has a reputation for being a clutch hitter, though the stats don’t really bear that out. He does have two World Series rings (2005 White Sox, 2010 Giants) but is a career .209/.246/.342 (57 wRC+) hitter in 170 postseason at-bats. Uribe has also hit .282/.348/.392 (105 wRC+) with men in scoring position the last three seasons and .274/.338/.395 (103 wRC+) in high-leverage spots, which is right in line with his overall numbers.

The clutch stuff is just noise. The most important thing is Uribe’s ability to hit left-handed pitchers and do so while playing part-time. Being a bench player is hard. Players aren’t used to sitting around for a few days between at-bats. Uribe did it for the Mets late last season (especially after David Wright returned from the DL) and that’s not nothing. He’s a quality bench hitter against left-handed pitchers.

The Defense

Although he’s on the portly side — listed at 6-foot-0 and 235 lbs. — Uribe is a shocking great defender at the hot corner. Both DRS and UZR have rated him as well-above-average at third base in recent years, and the eye test agrees as well. Uribe has good range, vacuum cleaner hands, and a very strong arm. There are some defensive plays in this highlight reel:

Uribe originally came up as a shortstop but he hasn’t played the position regularly since 2010 or at all since 2012. The Mets did use him at second base some last season — he hadn’t played the position at all since 2011 — and he held his own. He wasn’t great but he wasn’t a disaster there. Uribe is primarily a third baseman who can play second base in a pinch, so he doesn’t offer a ton of defensive versatility.

Injury History

A chest injury kept Uribe out for the final few weeks of the regular season as well as the NLDS and NLCS last year. (The Mets didn’t add him to their postseason roster until the World Series.) It was a fluke injury — Uribe dove for a ball (against the Yankees) and landed hard. He had some bruising that didn’t allow him to swing or throw properly, and it took time to heal.

Aside from that, Uribe has had some on and off hamstring issues the last few years, including pulls that required two separate DL stints in 2014. That’s really it. Uribe had some wrist issues back in 2012 and a sports hernia in 2011, neither of which has given him trouble since. The nagging hamstring trouble is a bit of a red flag but not a deal breaker. He’s not a pitcher with a history of arm problems or anything like that.

Contract Projections

Uribe was not eligible for the qualifying offer because he was traded (twice) at midseason, though he wasn’t a candidate to receive one anyway. There’s no draft pick to consider. FanGraphs was the only publication to consider Uribe a top 50 free agent and their crowdsourcing results spit out a two-year contract at $8M per year. That’s cheap starting infielder money.

Obviously there’s no reason for the Yankees to seriously consider Uribe at that price. That’s way too expensive for a bench player, even a potentially very good one. It’s starting to get a little late in the offseason, and off the top of my head, the only teams potentially in need of a starter at third base are the Indians, Angels, Braves, Reds, Brewers, and Pirates. The Braves, Reds, and Brewers are rebuilding teams with younger and cheaper options, so they’re long shots.

Uribe’s market appears to be pretty limited — teams in need of third base help may prefer the still unsigned David Freese because he’s several years younger — so that two-year, $16M projection seems pretty far-fetched. He’ll probably have to settle for a smaller one-year contract, similar to Mike Aviles ($2M), Gordon Beckham ($1.25M), Stephen Drew ($3M), Kelly Johnson ($2M), and Sean Rodriguez ($2.5M). Playing time and being with a contender may be bigger priorities at this point of Uribe’s career than cash.

Wrapping Up

One thing I have to mention that doesn’t fit in any of the previous categories is Uribe’s reputation for being a Grade A teammate and fan favorite. He’s ultra-popular. Many players have called Uribe their favorite teammate over the years and he has a knack for colorful quotes — “I have to get another contract to buy more cars,” he said to David O’Brien last summer when asked about his upcoming free agency. And then there’s the jazz hands:

Juan Uribe jazz hands

Outstanding. He does that after almost every swing too. Uribe reacts like he hit a home run every time he puts a ball in play. It’s pretty fun. None of this affects his on-field value, though being a great teammate and a fan favorite is not nothing either.

Anyway, even with his limited defensive versatility, Uribe seems like he would be a really great fit for that final bench spot. He’d give the Yankees a true backup third baseman and another right-handed hitter to help combat southpaws, who chewed the the team up down the stretch last season. That Uribe has experience being a bench player and going long stretches of time without playing is a plus in by book as well. No adjustment period.

Price and playing time may be an issue, however. Uribe has been pretty productive in recent years and he could be holding out for a starting spot — and a starter’s salary — which I understand. It might not be realistic at this point, but I get it. If Uribe is willing to take a low base salary one-year contract and serve as a backup/platoon bat, the Yankees would be wise to scoop him up for that final bench spot.

Scouting The Trade Market: Alex Wood

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

After losing Zack Greinke to the division rival Diamondbacks earlier this offseason, the Dodgers finally took some steps to improve their rotation last week, signing both Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda. Those two will join Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson in the rotation. Alex Wood and Mike Bolsinger figure to round out the starting staff until Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder) and Brandon McCarthy (elbow) are healthy.

Since the Maeda signing, there’s been speculation the Dodgers would be open to trading Wood for help elsewhere on the roster. (For what it’s worth, there was talk Los Angeles would flip Wood to the Cubs or Indians at the trade deadline.) GM Farhan Zaidi said they’re still trying to add to the rotation — “To the extent that adding more certainty to the rotation is an option for us over the next couple of months, we’ll definitely continue to look,” he said to reporters following the Kazmir deal — though that’s something every GM says.

The Yankees are in the market for rotation help, particularly a young starter they can control beyond the next two seasons. A left-hander would be preferable — CC Sabathia is the only southpaw starter either in MLB or remotely close to MLB in the organization at the moment — but isn’t a necessity. Quality is more important than handedness. Anyway, let’s see whether Wood is a fit for the Yankees.

The Performance

The Braves picked Wood right out of their backyard (University of Georgia) with their second round pick in the 2012 draft. The 24-year-old zoomed through the minors and made his big league debut in May 2013. He started out as a reliever and eventually moved to the rotation. Here are Wood’s two and a half seasons in the big leagues:

G/GS IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 31/11 77.2 3.13 2.65 23.6% 8.3% 49.1% 0.35 .307 .280
2014 35/24 171.2 2.78 3.25 24.5% 6.5% 45.9% 0.84 .288 .299
2015 32/32 189.2 3.84 3.69 17.4% 7.4% 49.5% 0.71 .343 .228
Total 98/67 439.0 3.30 3.34 21.2% 7.2% 48.1% 0.70 .316 .267

That all looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Wood has a history of missing bats and getting grounders, the latter of which has helped him keep the ball in the park. (Playing in pitcher friendly Turner Field and Dodger Stadium helped too.) His walk rates have been fine and, up until last season, his platoon split wasn’t huge.

Last season was Wood’s first as a full-time starter and his strikeout right fell big time while his platoon split stretched out substantially. That leads me to wonder what his performance as a starter looked like from 2013-14. Are his numbers as a reliever skewing things? Here’s the split:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
as SP 402.0 3.31 3.42 20.6% 7.2% 47.8% 0.72
as RP 37.0 3.16 2.41 27.8% 7.3% 52.1% 0.49

Like most pitchers Wood has been more effective in relief throughout his career, albeit in a small sample. His numbers as a starter from 2013-14 are much better than his numbers as a starter in 2015 though. Look at the averages — he had a 17.4% strikeout rate last year but is at 20.6% overall as a starter in his career.

Generally speaking, Wood’s performance is rock solid. He’s not a front of the rotation guy or anything like that, but he has been an average or better starter over the years. The big dip in strikeout rate and suddenly massive platoon split last season are curious. Not sure I’d call them red flags just yet, but they exist. Something happened there.

The Stuff

From a stuff perspective, Wood is nice and simple. He throws three pitches: a sinker, a changeup, and a breaking ball. The breaking ball is pretty slurvy — at times it looks like a curveball and at others it has shorter break like a slider. Wood’s stuff doesn’t qualify as electric but it does play up because of his ridiculous delivery. I don’t know how to describe it. Just watch:

I can’t imagine Wood is a comfortable at-bat. He’s a deceptively big guy — he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs. on the team’s official site — and that herky jerky delivery is all arms and legs. There’s a lot of moving parts. The hitters react to Wood’s sinker like it’s 4-5 mph faster than it really is. Look at the swings in the video. They don’t seem to pick up the ball well out of his hand.

Wood has thrown the sinker roughly 60% of the time throughout his career and both the breaking ball and changeup about 20% of the time each. Wood’s not one of those fastball/breaking ball guys with a show-me changeup. He legitimately uses all three pitches, which is why he’s had success as a starter.

The three-pitch repertoire and the deception are nice. This is not:

Alex Wood velocityWood’s velocity is trending downward and not so gradually either. His sinker went from averaging 92.5 mph in 2013 to 89.8 mph in 2015. That’s almost a 3 mph decline in the span of three seasons for a guy who has yet to turn 25. Yikes. Also, Wood has a history of losing velocity in the second half, indicating he wears down during the season.

Furthermore, Wood operated at basically two velocities last season. His sinker was right around 90 mph and both the breaking ball and changeup sat around 83 mph. Two years ago it was a low-to-mid-90s sinker, a mid-80s changeup, and a breaking ball around 80 mph. That’s three distinct speeds. Now it’s only two. Chances are that contributed to Wood’s falling strikeout rate.

Because of his falling velocity, Wood now is not the same guy that he was two years ago. His 2013 performance — which was split between the rotation and bullpen anyway — is much less relevant than his 2015 performance. Last year Wood set career worsts in ERA and FIP. The decline in stuff suggests it’s no fluke.

Injury History

Wood is a Tommy John surgery survivor. He had his elbow rebuilt in the spring of 2009 and took a medical redshirt as a freshman as Georgia. Wood was also shut down late in the 2014 season due to a forearm strain. He also missed a start with a blister in 2013, but that’s no big deal.

It’s important to point out Wood was completely healthy last season. He returned from the forearm strain and had no problems in 2015. It’s still something of a red flag though, especially for a guy with Tommy John surgery in his history and that wild delivery. It’s possible Wood simply isn’t built to hold up under a starter’s workload.

Contract Status

Unfortunately for Wood, he fell about a week shy of qualifying for Super Two status this offseason. He has two years and 123 days of service time (2.123) while the Super Two cutoff was roughly 2.130. Sucks. That’ll cost him a couple million bucks. Wood has four years of team control remaining, one as a pre-arbitration player and then three of arbitration-eligibility.

From what I can tell, Wood has at least one and possibly all three minor league options remaining. He was sent down in 2013 and 2014 but only briefly. It doesn’t appear he was down long enough (20 days) to burn an option. Still though, you don’t want Wood to use his options at this point of his career. Any team that trades for Wood wants him to contribute to their MLB team. Having to send him to Triple-A means something went wrong.

What Would It Take?

Wood himself was traded at the deadline last year, but it was as part of a massive 13-player, three-team trade. We can’t gauge his trade value from that. Pitchers traded in recent years with four seasons of control remaining include …

  • Shelby Miller: Traded with Jordan Walden for one year of Jason Heyward and a prospect.
  • Jake Arrieta: Traded with Pedro Strop for rental Scott Feldman and a prospect.
  • Gio Gonzalez: Traded for four prospects, most notably Tommy Milone and Derek Norris.

… which gives us an interesting cross section of pitchers. Gonzalez was about to get expensive as a Super Two and the Athletics traded him for prospects. Arrieta was a busted former top prospect the Orioles flipped for Feldman to help their 2013 postseason drive. The Cardinals dealt Miller in a win-now move that brought them an impact player, albeit one year of one.

Which one of those applies most to Wood? It’s Miller, right? The Dodgers are a win-now team and they’ve not going to move Wood in what amounts to a salary dump like the A’s did with Gonzalez, and Wood’s not broken like Arrieta. (Arrieta was really, really bad in Baltimore.) That said, Miller was generally held in much higher regard then Wood. Miller was a former top prospect with high-end stuff. Wood’s mostly a deception guy with some believers and also some detractors.

Wrapping Up

I don’t really understand how president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman is running the Dodgers. He’s obsessing with team control like he did with the Rays but is also sprinkling in some win-now moves, like Kazmir and Maeda. (And the failed Aroldis Chapman trade.) What would he want for Wood? Big league pieces or prospects? They traded Dee Gordon for prospects, remember. That was weird.

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Anyway, the framework of an Andrew Miller for Alex Wood trade exists, but a straight one for one swap makes no sense for the Yankees. Zero. Three years of an elite reliever for four years of a good starter with a vanishing fastball doesn’t make sense for New York. Wood would have to be part of a three or four player package, and the second piece would have to be pretty significant. Right? I’m not being crazy here. Miller for Wood makes the Yankees worse. They need quite a bit more.

The Dodgers have too many outfielders — they’re still trying to unload Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford — so Brett Gardner doesn’t really fit here. One year of Chapman for Wood would be kinda interesting, but Los Angeles backed away from Chapman after the domestic violence case came to light, so I doubt they’re interested. I suppose the Dodgers could focus on a prospect package for Wood. I dunno.

The Yankees have been looking for a young controllable starter all offseason and Wood fits the bill, though he is not without his flaws. His velocity has been fading, his performance suffered last season, and he pairs an ugly delivery with a history of elbow problems. There’s a decent chance Wood will be relegated to the bullpen full-time at some point during his four remaining years of team control if his velocity doesn’t bounce back.

That said, Wood is a three-pitch lefty who has a history of limiting bats and getting grounders. That’s not nothing. There are always reasons to not trade for a guy. Those are some reasons to trade for him. Whether the Yankees and Dodgers can find common ground is another matter. As far as I’m concerned, the Miller for Wood framework only makes sense if the Yankees are getting at least one other significant piece.

Scouting The Trade Market: Chad Bettis

(Doug Pensinger/Getty)
(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Despite their perpetual interest, the Yankees have yet to land a young starting pitcher controllable beyond 2017 this offseason. They have reportedly focused on acquiring such a player in trade talks involving Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller. The closest they’ve come to getting a young starter is picking up Luis Cessa and Chad Green in the Justin Wilson trade.

The Rockies seem like a team that should be focused on adding young pitching, not trading it away, but GM Jeff Bridich told Patrick Saunders he is “open to whatever, I mean it” earlier this offseason. Open to whatever as long as it helps improve the team, of course. Right-hander Chad Bettis could be a possible under-the-radar trade target for the Yankees as they look to add that controllable pitcher to their rotation. Is he a fit? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

Might as well start with some background information. Bettis, 26, was Colorado’s second round pick in the 2010 draft out of Texas Tech. Baseball America ranked him as the 86th best prospect in the game prior to the 2012 season — he was one spot behind Mason Williams — and Bettis made his big league debut late in 2013. He spent 2014 going up and down before spending the majority of 2015 in the team’s rotation. Here are his overall MLB stats.

G GS IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 16 8 44.2 5.64 4.93 14.4% 9.6% 46.7% .395 .351
2014 21  0 24.2 9.12 5.52 10.2% 7.9% 45.9% .488 .394
2015 20 20 115.0 4.23 3.85 19.5% 8.4% 49.3% .345 .323
TOTAL 57 28 184.1 5.22 4.33 16.9% 8.6% 48.1% .380 .340

Bettis was called up two seasons ago and came down with a case of Coors Field. He was limited to relief work last year and it was the first time he worked out of the bullpen in his career. Those 2013-14 numbers are ugly. No doubt about it.

I’m choosing to focus on Bettis’ 2015 performance because it’s most recent, and also because it was the first time he was given an opportunity to stay in the rotation for an extended period of time. Going up and down sucks. Once he had a chance to settle in, Bettis posted an average strikeout rate and an above-average ground ball rate, which is a nice starting point.

Coors Field uglified his overall numbers — Bettis had a 4.99 ERA (3.90 FIP) at home and a 3.35 ERA (3.79 FIP) on the road in 2015 — because that’s what it does, though I’m not one of those people who thinks road performance indicates the true talent level of a player who just so happens to be stuck on the Rockies. After all, Dodger Stadium, Petco Park, and AT&T Park are pretty great places to pitch.

Bettis is not a big guy — he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 lbs. on the team’s official site — and the usual concern with pitchers that size is they’re unable to get good downward plane on their fastball and thus become fly ball prone. Bettis has gotten a good amount of grounders in his career to date, so that doesn’t really seem to be a problem. He had a 0.86 HR/9 (11.0 HR/FB%) this past season and 1.03 HR/9 (11.8 HR/FB%) over the last three years, which is average or a tick better. Maybe more than a tick considering his home park.

Also, despite the higher than average walk rates — that was the case all throughout the minors as well — Bettis has a reputation for pitching aggressively. “Bettis is tenacious and attacks hitters with everything he throws,” wrote Baseball America in their 2013 Prospect Handbook. The walk rates are the result of control issues, not an unwillingness to go after hitters. Walks are annoying. Walks because the pitcher nibbles are even more annoying.

I’m not sure anyone has come up with a good way to normalize the Coors Field effect. (There’s evidence simple park factors don’t fully adjust for the thin mountain air.) Given the sample size and his home ballpark, I’m inclined to outright ignore what Bettis has done to date, at least when trying to project what he’ll be going forward. Too many complicated variables at play.

The Stuff

To me, the scouting report is much more important than the stats with Bettis. It’s almost like he’s a prospect at this point. Bettis is a five-pitch pitcher who throws three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), a curveball, and a changeup. The cutter is often misclassified as a slider by PitchFX for whatever reason.

Here is some PitchFX data on Bettis’ arsenal. This is 2015 data only because it’s the most recent, and also because he spent time in the bullpen the two previous years. That can screw things up. Pitchers rarely throw all their pitches in relief. (Adam Warren was a notable exception.) The MLB averages are in parentheses.

% Thrown Avg. Velo. Whiff% GB%
Four-Seam 48.9% 92.8 (92.4) 5.6% (6.9%) 48.4% (37.9%)
Sinker 10.8% 91.7 (90.8) 5.9% (5.4%) 57.1% (49.5%)
Cutter 9.6% 87.9 (88.0) 20.7% (9.7%) 65.7% (43.0%)
Curveball 15.0% 74.7 (77.8) 13.9% (11.1%) 25.6% (48.7%)
Changeup 15.8% 85.6 (83.3) 19.6% (14.9%) 73.5% (47.8%)

Bettis’ fastball velocity is more or less average — PitchFX says he topped out at 97.2 mph and 96.5 mph with the four-seamer and sinker this past season, respectively — and he gets an above-average number of ground balls with both his four-seamer and sinker, but not many swings and misses.

The cutter looks like a well-above-average pitch given the rate of whiffs and grounders, but he only threw it 9.6% of the time in 2015, so it could be sample size noise. In fact, Bettis threw only 179 cutters this past season, so yeah. The changeup is interesting. It looks like a great pitch based on whiffs and grounders, yet left-handed batters hit Bettis kind hard this season.

This could be a sample size issue, though I do think the velocity might have something to do with it too. Ideally a pitcher would have a 10 mph or so separation between his fastball and changeup. Bettis approximately had a 7 mph separation in 2015, less if you look at the sinker. The lack of big time separation could indicate the pitch is more hittable than the swing-and-miss and grounder numbers indicate. Here’s some video:

I suppose it’s only fair to point out the extreme separation between Bettis’ fastball and curveball after talking about the lack of separation with the changeup. He got some ugly swings with that slow curve in the video.

Playing at altitude doesn’t only allow the ball travel farther when hit, it also changes a pitcher’s stuff. It’s a physics issue — in the thin air, the ball encounters less resistance as it spins towards the plate. I don’t want to get too nerdy, but the interaction between the spinning seams and the molecules in the air determines how the ball moves. That interaction at sea level is different than it is on top of a mountain.

That’s a big reason why the Rockies have had such a hard time finding pitchers who can have consistent success in their home ballpark — they don’t know how their stuff will behave in the thin air until they get there. Bettis has a track record of missing bats all throughout the minors and the PitchFX data suggests he has options to get whiffs and grounders. Get him out of Coors Field and his stuff may firm up.

Injury History

Bettis has had some arm problems in his career, most notably losing the entire 2012 season to a strained muscle behind his shoulder. Didn’t throw a single pitch that year. Bettis did not have surgery and he hasn’t had any shoulder trouble since, and his velocity has returned to it’s pre-injury levels. (He lost 2-3 mph in 2013 but it has since returned.)

Furthermore, elbow inflammation cost Bettis a little more than a month this past season. He got hurt in late-July, rehabbed for a month after an MRI showed no structural damage, then returned to the mound in late-September and pitched with no issues the rest of the season. Little bit of a scare there. Bettis also missed two months with an oblique strain in 2013, though that’s not a concern. It happens.

The shoulder and elbow injuries are, however, red flags. The only good news is that his shoulder injury only involved a muscle and not his labrum or the tendons in his rotator cuff. Also, the elbow MRI showed his ulnar collateral ligament was intact as recently as this past July. Shoulder and elbow injuries are always bad. Bettis’ appear to have been less bad than they could have been.

Contract Status

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

Thanks to all the up-and-down action the last three years, Bettis has accrued one year and 96 days of service time, commonly written as 1.096. He has five years of team control remaining. Two as a pre-arbitration player and three as an arbitration-eligible player. I suppose he could qualify as a Super Two following next season if the cutoff falls low enough, but that seems very unlikely.

Bettis has one minor league option remaining. The Rockies purchased his contract and called him up for the first time in August 2013, and he spent the rest of the year in the big leagues. He burned his first option going up and down in 2014, then burned his second when he was sent to Triple-A to start 2015. That means he has one left, unless he somehow qualifies for a fourth option. Either way, a team that trades for him hopes the options are a moot point. They’ll want to stick him in their rotation and leave him there.

What Would It Take?

Bettis is a former mid-range prospect with five years of team control left, and those guys are usually traded in packages for an established big leaguer, so we have an interesting dynamic here. The Rockies are rebuilding (I think) and presumably want young pieces in return. They have no use for 32-year-old Brett Gardner or 30-year-old Andrew Miller.

Recent trades involving pitchers five years from free agency include …

  • Roenis Elias: Traded as second piece in a deal for Wade Miley.
  • Nate Karns: Traded as headliner in three-player package for Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, and Danny Farquhar.
  • Dan Straily: Traded with Luis Valbuena for one year of Dexter Fowler.
  • Jarred Cosart: Traded with two spare parts for three prospects, most notably Colin Moran and Jake Marisnick.

… and none of that really helps us. The Cosart trade is probably most applicable, which, at the time, boiled down to Cosart for Moran and Marisnick with other stuff thrown in. Baseball America ranked Moran and Marisnick as the Nos. 61 and 79 prospects prior to 2014, the year of the trade. At the same time, Cosart was more highly regarded than Bettis. He was twice ranked as a top 100 prospect by Baseball America, topping out at No. 50 in 2012.

The Yankees traded six years of Shane Greene for five years of Didi Gregorius, and that might be the framework for a Bettis trade. My promising young player for your promising young player. The Rockies need basically everything at this point. Gary Sanchez for Bettis may seem like an overpay but that could be what it takes. Perhaps they can talk them down to, say, Rob Refsnyder, something like that. My trade proposal sucks, I know.

Point is, this isn’t a Gardner or Miller for Bettis plus stuff trade. The Rockies don’t need those guys. If they do trade Bettis, they’re going to trade him for young players. Also, here’s a weird factor to consider: Bettis has not fallen out of favor with the Rockies. The Yankees have targeted guys who have fallen out of favor with their previous teams during their on-the-fly rebuild (Gregorius, Dustin Ackley, Starlin Castro, etc.) so they don’t have to pay full freight. Bettis doesn’t fit that mold.

Wrapping Up

I know there’s nothing sexy about Bettis as a trade target, and you can always come with a reason to not trade for anyone, but look at what he offers. He’s only 26, he has five years of control, he throws five pitches, he gets grounders, he has a history of missing bats, and he has experience pitching in an extreme hitter’s environment. Those are all pluses in my book.

The injury history is a red flag, no doubt about it, as is the history of average at best control. There’s risk. That’s true of every pitcher. The Rockies have indicated a willingness to move just about anyone in an effort to improve, and Bettis is a potential long-term rotation piece with solid stuff who seems like someone pitching coach Larry Rothschild could help take to the next level.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Kenta Maeda

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Even though the New Year is right around the corner, there are still several quality free agent pitchers on the board. Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, and Wei-Yin Chen are the most notable. Usually teams like to handle their major business by this point of the offseason so they can simply tinker the rest of the way, but the remaining unsigned free agents ensure January will be busier than usual.

Another available free agent starter — free agent but not in the traditional sense — is right-hander Kenta Maeda. Maeda spent this past season as Hiroki Kuroda‘s teammate with the Hiroshima Carp, and he’s now coming over to MLB after eight seasons in Japan. Maeda has already been posted, so this isn’t a will he or won’t he be available thing. He’s available. The process is already underway. Does Maeda make any sense for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

Maeda, 28 in April, has been one of the best but not necessarily the best pitcher in Japan over the last few years. He was behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka for a few years, and more recently Shohei Otani has risen to the top of the Japanese pitching ranks. That said, Maeda won the Eiji Sawamura Award as Nippon Pro Baseball’s top pitcher in both 2010 and 2015. Here are his career stats, via Baseball Reference:

Kenta Maeda stats

The Carp play in NPB’s Central League, which does not use the DH. For reference, the Central League averages in 2015 were a 3.25 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9. Maeda was obviously excellent, but he was pitching in a pitcher friendly league. Just providing a little context, you guys.

Anyway, Maeda doesn’t offer the same kind of blow-you-away ability as Darvish and Tanaka. During their final seasons in Japan, Tanaka had a 1.27 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9 while Darvish had a 1.44 ERA with 10.7 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9. They both pitched in the Pacific League too, the DH league. Maeda’s never really performed at that level.

(One thing to keep in mind — and we talked about this with Tanaka a few years back — is that hitters in Japan have a very different approach than hitters in MLB. They focus on contact and spraying the ball around. That’s why Tanaka and Darvish saw their strikeout rates tick up after coming stateside. The same could happen with Maeda.)

The Stuff

Maeda is a five-pitch pitcher who throws two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker), a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. We have a very tiny little bit of PitchFX data for him, from the 2013 World Baseball Classic, when he pitched in AT&T Park. Here are his average velocities, from Brooks Baseball:

Kenta Maeda velocity

There are some major, major caveats here. For starters, this is from a game played in mid-March, so this is basically Spring Training velocity. Also, it’s one game. Five innings and 82 pitches worth, to be exact. And finally, this is more than two years old now. It’ll be three years old by time Spring Training rolls around. So take this info with a huge grain of salt. It’s not meaningless, but it shouldn’t be taken as gospel either.

For some updated information of Maeda, here’s a snippet of a scouting report from Ben Badler (subs. req’d) earlier this month:

Maeda has shown solid stuff across the board, with a fastball that sits at 89-93 mph and can touch 94, a tick above-average slider that he leans on heavily, along with a curveball and a changeup he will use to try to keep hitters off balance … (in the Premier 12 tournament in November), Maeda’s changeup was a plus pitch. At times, the pitch had good sink, at others it had excellent fade, and sometimes it had both.

The inaugural Premier 12 tournament was held in November. It’s like a mini-World Baseball Classic. Teams from 12 different countries competed (non-40-man roster players only) with the winning club splitting a $1M pool. (South Korea won this year.) Badler notes Maeda’s main offspeed pitch is his slider, though he showed an improved changeup in his two Premier 12 starts, perhaps emphasizing the pitch because he knew scouts would be watching.

Here’s some video of Maeda in action. This is all 50 pitches from his start against Puerto Rico in the Premier 12 last month. (He was on a pitch limit after the long season.) For reference, 145 kmph is approximately 90 mph.

Like most Asian pitchers, Maeda has that little hesitation in the middle of his delivery. His slider looked pretty sharp and his changeup was impressive in that one look, but again, it was just one look. Try not to make too much of those 50 pitches. Badler says Maeda lacks a bonafide knockout pitch like Darvish’s slider or Tanaka’s splitter, and he instead succeeds with fastball command and an array of offspeed stuff.

“Several scouts feel comfortable projecting Maeda as an immediate No. 4 starter in a big league rotation,” wrote Badler. I feel guys with that profile — fastball command and lots of offspeed stuff — tend to perform better than expected because the big leagues are so strikeout heavy. Kuroda had a similar profile. He commanded the fastball and went to work with sliders and splitters and curveballs.

Workload & Injury History

Unlike Tanaka and Darvish, Maeda has not endured a huge workload in Japan. He has been a workhorse, throwing 190+ innings in five of the last seven seasons and 200+ innings in four of the last six seasons. Tanaka and Darvish threw 1,315 and 1,268.1 innings in Japan through their age 24 seasons, then came to MLB. Maeda is at 1,509.2 innings through his age 27 season. So yes, he’s thrown a lot of innings, but he hasn’t been through the same kind of workload as Tanaka and Darvish.

As for injuries, Maeda missed time with relatively minor elbow problems in both 2013 and 2014. It was termed “discomfort” in 2013 and “tightness” in 2014. He missed a few starts each time and returned to the mound with no problems. Maeda’s had some minor non-arm issues as well, specifically oblique tightness, a bruised quad after being hit by a line drive, and tonsillitis. Yes, tonsillitis. That stuff is whatever. No big deal. The elbow is a concern but it is worth noting Maeda stayed perfectly healthy in 2015. No problems at all.

Contract Estimates

The posting agreement between MLB and NPB changed two years ago, right before Tanaka was posted, as I’m sure you remember. The old system featured blind bids, then a 30-day negotiating window for the player and the team with the high bid. Under the new system, the NPB team sets a release fee, then every MLB team can negotiate with the player for a period of 30 days. The team that signs him pays the release fee.

The Carp have set the release fee for Maeda at the maximum $20M, as expected. There is conflicting information about when exactly Maeda was posted — Jayson Stark says he was posted December 8th while Jon Heyman says he was posted December 10th — but the important thing is he has been posted, and there is still something like 18-20 days left in that 30-day negotiating period.

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

Maeda was in Los Angeles last week meeting with teams according to Bill Plunkett and Sponichi Yakyu, though it’s unclear how long he’ll be there. This does not necessarily mean he’s leaning towards a Southern California team. Tanaka did the same thing. Rather than travel to the different MLB cities, he went to Los Angeles and the teams went to him to make their pitch. It’s unclear if Maeda is still in Los Angeles. He could be back in Japan already.

I haven’t seen anything indicating the kind of contract Maeda is seeking. Eno Sarris did some good work trying to come up with an estimate and landed at six years and $105M, with $20M of that going to the Carp for the release fee. (The contract counts against the luxury tax, the posting fee does not.) So a player contract worth $85 across six years? That’s a $14.2M average annual value, or Ervin Santana money.

That sound reasonable? I could see Maeda’s camp pushing for an opt-out after, say, three years, allowing him to jump back into the market at a relatively young age if he proves he can thrive in MLB. There’s some evidence teams get a discount by including an opt-out, so maybe instead of six years at $14.2M it ends up being six years at $13M annually. I’m just spitballin’ here. It’s tough to gauge Maeda’s market. It only takes one team to see him as an ace and make a huge offer.

Wrapping Up

Believe it or not, the Yankees are among the teams with interest in Maeda according to a Yahoo! Japan report. The Dodgers, Padres, Angels, Mariners, Cardinals, and Astros are also said to be in the mix. Peter Gammons notes Maeda’s cultural transition should be relatively painless because his wife spent time studying in the U.S. and speaks perfect English. I dunno. We’ll see.

Anyway, I am intrigued by Maeda, more than I thought I would be before writing this post. He’s not a big guy at all (listed at 6-foot-0 and 180 lbs.) but he has good fastball command and confidence in multiple offspeed pitches, so he’s a pretty complete pitcher. The elbow woes are a red flag, no doubt about it, though they have been minor and Maeda stayed healthy this past season.

I don’t see Maeda — his nickname is Maeken, by the way (MAEda KENta) — as an ace or anything like that. It does seem like he has a chance to contribute as a mid-rotation guy for someone though. There’s no indication the Yankees will spend money on a significant free agent this offseason, though the release fee doesn’t not count against the luxury tax and Maeda’s annual salary may not be exorbitant. He may be a reasonably priced rotation option, at least relative to the other top available free agent starters, who are all looking at $16M+ per year.