Archive for Scouting The Market

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

The Yankees have swung a trade late in Spring Training in each of the last three seasons, and if they’re going to do the same this spring, they’ll have to do it soon. Opening Day in Houston is only 12 days away. Infield help figures to be the top priority at this point but adding another arm, specifically for the bullpen, wouldn’t be a bad idea. It’s not like you can have too many relievers.

This time of year, most trades involve players who are out of options and can’t go to the minors without passing through waivers. Teams don’t want to lose them for nothing, so they’re traded if don’t make the roster. That’s how the Yankees wound up with Chris Stewart in Spring Training 2012 and why they traded away Sergio Mitre in Spring Training 2011. MLBTR has this year’s list of out of options players and one of the most well-stocked teams is the Pirates, who have four out of options pitchers for three bullpen spots. Both Travis Sawchik and Tim Williams expect a trade before Opening Day, not someone to be placed on waivers. Is there a trade match with the Yankees? Let’s look.

Jeanmar Gomez
If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because Gomez threw a perfect game against Double-A Trenton back in May 2009. The 26-year-old right-hander was the Pirates swingman last summer, pitching to a 3.35 ERA (3.85 FIP) in 80.2 innings across eight starts and 26 relief appearances. Gomez is a classic low-90s sinker, low-80s slider, low-80s changeup guy who gets grounders (55.4%) but doesn’t miss bats (15.9 K%) or really limit walks (8.4 BB%). On the bright side, he did not have much of a platoon split last year, holding righties to a .269 wOBA and lefties to a .278 wOBA. Not the sexiest pitcher in the world, but for a swingman, you could do worse.

Vin Mazzaro
Mazzaro, 27, is local guy from Hackensack who really blossomed after moving in the bullpen full time last year, posting a 2.81 ERA (3.31 FIP) in 73.2 innings. He’s a low strikeout (15.1 K%), low walk (6.9 BB%), high ground ball (52.2%) pitcher despite a mid-90s two-seamer and upper-80s slider. Mazzaro had a small reverse platoon split in 2013, holding righties to .286 wOBA and lefties to a .269 wOBA. Given his two power pitches, there’s a chance the Yankees and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would be able to really unlock his strikeout potential, something they’ve done with guys like Shawn Kelley and Boone Logan in recent years.

Bryan Morris
Morris came over from the Dodgers in the Jason Bay/Manny Ramirez trade way back in the day, but it wasn’t until last season that he got extended time in the big leagues. The 26-year-old had a 3.46 ERA (4.89 FIP) in 65 innings, getting … wait for it … lots of grounders (57.5%) but few strikeouts (13.7 K%). His walk rate (10.4 BB%) was really high and lefties gave him a bit of a hard time (.320 wOBA) as well (.295 for RHB).

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

Morris. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

The numbers aren’t anything special but what makes Morris interesting is that he’s shown increased velocity and a new pitch in camp. Sawchik says scouts have clocked Morris’ four-seamer at 97 mph and his cutter at 91 mph this spring, both up 2-3 from last season. He’s also added a two-seamer in the mid-90s. A hard low-90s slider is his breaking ball. Morris has battled elbow and shoulder problems over the years and once upon a time Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he had “a 92-94 mph fastball that has hit 96 mph” and “the stuff of a frontline starter.” It could simply be that his old velocity has just started to fully return now that he’s a few years away from his last arm injury.

Stolmy Pimentel
Pimentel, 24, was part of last winter’s Mark Melancon-Joel Hanrahan trade. He made his big league debut last September (1.93 ERA and 1.76 FIP in 9.1 innings) after pitching to a 3.35 ERA (~3.96 FIP) in 169.1 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. His minor league strikeout (17.3 K%) and walk (7.9 BB%) weren’t anything to write home about. In their 2014 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America said Pimentel “sits at 92-94 mph … topping out at 95″ and has an “excellent, mid-80s split-changeup,” though they caution “he’s probably not quite ready for prime time” and will “have to earn his stripes in low-leverage work.”

* * *

The Yankees have several guys just like Gomez in David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno, and as interesting as his two-pitch mix may be, Pimentel wouldn’t really move the bullpen needle all that much this year. Mazzaro and Morris are decent middle relievers with the type of power stuff the Yankees love, though the strikeout numbers don’t back it up. It’s obvious New York values having strikeout pitchers in their bullpen for what I think are obvious reasons. For what it’s worth, Rob Biertempfel and Ken Davidoff say everyone but Pimentel is available.

What would the Pirates want in exchange for Mazzaro or Morris? How do you value an out of options middle reliever? Stewart had knee surgery and will likely miss 4-6 weeks according to Sawchik, but would the Yankees really deal a spare catcher for a middle reliever who might not last the season? Maybe Austin Romine, but even then that feels like a stretch. Remember, the Yankees have a full 40-man roster, so they’d not only have to give up something in a trade for these guys, but they’d have to clear a 40-man spot as well (which they could do in the trade, obviously). Pittsburgh has some extra interesting arms, but I have a hard time seeing a trade fit here. Then again, the Yankees and Pirates get together for a trade every other week it seems, so who knows what’s cooking now.

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Nope. (Presswire)

Nope. (Presswire)

I’m about to jinx the hell out of it, but this has been a very quiet Spring Training for the Yankees. Last spring was an injury filled nightmare, as I’m sure you remember. This year though? No complaints so far. Knock on wood.

That is not the case with the Braves. Their pitching staff has been hit hard by injuries, with Kris Medlen (elbow), Mike Minor (shoulder), and Brandon Beachy (biceps) all going down and questionable at best for Opening Day. Medlen’s injury sounds rather serious too. Things are getting so bad that manager Fredi Gonzalez said “thank God we sign Freddy Garcia” the other day. Imagine that.

The Braves signed Ervin Santana to a one-year deal this morning, but one pitcher does not replace three. You can be sure Atlanta is still seeking depth arms. The Yankees have four pitchers competing for their final rotation spot, so they’re one of the few teams that could trade a starter for help elsewhere. Do David Phelps, Adam Warren, or Vidal Nuno interest the Braves (I assume Michael Pineda is off limits)? Who knows. What does Wren have to offer? Let’s look.

2B/SS Tyler Pastornicky
Pastornicky, 24, has hit .251/.292/.327 (84 wRC+) in 221 plate appearances over the last two seasons, only 33 of which came last year. He’s been pushed aside by Andrelton Simmons and is currently competing with former Yankee Ramiro Pena for a bench job. Pastornicky managed a .292/.354/.392 (111 wRC+) batting line with four homers and nine steals in 320 plate appearances in Triple-A last summer.

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Pastornicky as the team’s seventh best prospect prior to the 2012 season, saying he “has a good feel for hitting and makes consistent line-drive contact … He has above-average range at shortstop, and he could get more out of his average arm with a more consistent arm slot.” Some of the bloom has come off the rose the last two years as his bat has failed to develop, but Pastornicky can legitimately play short (he spent more of last year at second because Simmons isn’t going anywhere) and the Yankees are in need of young infield help.

2B Dan Uggla
This is an automatic no for me. Has to be, right? We’ve already lived through the Vernon Wells experiment, no need to take on the infield version*. The 34-year-old Uggla hit .179/.309/.362 (91 wRC+) with 22 homers last season, struggling so much in the second half that he was benched in favor of Pena and Elliot Johnson at times, and was left off the postseason roster completely. He’s also not much of a second baseman anymore and he’s owed $26M through 2015. We heard the Yankees had no interest in Uggla in December and there’s no reason to have interest in him now, no matter what the infield looks like.

* Okay, fine. Uggla has not been Vernon bad, but he’s been bad. I’m not interested in seeing if he can recapture past magic.

La Stella. (Mark Cunningham/Getty)

La Stella. (Mark Cunningham/Getty)

2B Tommy La Stella
La Stella, 25, is local kid from New Jersey and the Braves’ top middle infield prospect. He’s expected to replace Uggla at second, perhaps as soon as Opening Day. La Stella managed a .356/.444/.492 (174 wRC+) batting line with five homers and eight steals in 352 plate appearances at (mostly) Double-A last summer, though he was obviously a bit old for the level. Here’s what Baseball America (subs. req’d) had to say when they ranked him as the team’s ninth best prospect a few weeks ago:

La Stella has hit at every level thanks to great hand-eye coordination and above-average bat speed. He has an excellent approach and exceptional feel for the strike zone, which helps him rack up more walks than strikeouts. La Stella also shines as a situational hitter with his ability to advance runners via the hit-and-run or by bunting. He runs the bases well and with intelligence despite not being blessed with great quick-twitch athleticism. Defensively, he makes all of the routine plays at the keystone and has an average arm. Nagging injuries, including an elbow issue this season, have kept him from playing even 100 games in a season.

The numbers are great and the scouting report indicates a classic number two hitter profile, though that might equal a number eight or nine hitter in a good lineup. La Stella’s appeal is obvious given the Yankees’ need for long-term infield solution, but I’m pretty sure the Braves would make him off limits while discussing back-end starters. This one ain’t happening.

* * *

The Yankees don’t need any outfielders and trading a potential starter for a reliever doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so it’s infield or bust with the Braves. With La Stella off the table, it’s Pastornicky or Uggla. With Uggla being awful, it’s basically Pastornicky, and there have been no indications he is actually available. The Santana signing removed any real sense of urgency.

This is not a similar situation as potentially trading a spare catcher to the Diamondbacks for one of their young infielders. Not only do those infielders have more ceiling than Pastornicky, who looks more like a utility man than anything at this point, but dealing Phelps or Warren or Nuno would directly impact New York’s big league roster. Nuno might be the low man in the fifth starter competition, but we’re still going to see him in the show this summer, either in relief or making a start or ten.

Unless the Braves put La Stella on a table, I don’t see much of a trade match between them and the Yankees. Nuno for Pastornicky might make some sense, but the Bombers are chock full of fringy infielders already and I’d rather have the extra arm at this point. Atlanta doesn’t have an obvious short or long-term infield upgrade to offer, so the Yankees’ best move here is to just stand pat. They’re under no obligation to make a move just between they have what the other team needs.

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Owings. (Presswire)

Owings. (Presswire)

Even after signing Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and a small army of guys on minor league contracts, the Yankees continue to look for infield help before the start of the season. They need both short and long-term help too. With Stephen Drew the only appealing free agent still on the board, trading for an infielder seems like the best way for the club to get the help it needs. One of the few teams with infield depth to spare is the Diamondbacks.

“For us, it would have to be the right deal,” said former Yankees special assistant and current D’Backs GM Kevin Towers to Nick Piecoro when asked about trading an infielder. “Our biggest needs in our system are catching. If it’s the right, top-notch catching prospect. Someone we could have right behind [Miguel Montero]. More of an upper-level guy. Maybe a top, upper-end starter. We have a lot of bullpen depth, infielders. Maybe an outfielder, but probably more catching and Double-A, Triple-A type starter.”

Towers went on to say the team has not had many trade discussions about their infielders recently, likely because Drew remains unsigned. Marc Carig heard the D’Backs were looking for a Travis d’Arnaud type, a premium catching prospect, but I suspect that is posturing more than anything. No harm in asking for the moon. The Yankees have a bunch of young catchers and as luck would have it, they really need a young infielder. The trade fit is obvious. Let’s see what Arizona has to offer.

Nick Ahmed
Ahmed, 24 next month, is local product out of UConn who went from the Braves to the D’Backs in last winter’s Justin Upton trade. He hasn’t hit much during his three years as a pro, including putting up a weak .236/.288/.324 (77 wRC+) batting line with four homers and 26 stolen bases in 538 Double-A plate appearances last season. Ahmed is considered a top notch gloveman though, with Baseball America calling him a “plus defender at shortstop with soft hands, a strong, accurate arm and a quick release” in their 2014 Prospect Handbook. They ranked him as the 18th best prospect in Arizona’s system and likened him to John McDonald long-term.



Didi Gregorius
The D’Backs acquired Gregorius from the Reds last offseason as part of the Shin-Soo Choo three-team trade. They insisted the 24-year-old could hit for weeks after the deal, then he went out and put up a .252/.332/.373 (91 wRC+) line with seven homers in 404 plate appearances as the team’s everyday shortstop last summer. That’s a touch better than Eduardo Nunez production. Acceptable for a good defender but not enough to erase the doubts about his bat.

Gregorius hit his first career homer at Yankee Stadium early last year, but his calling card will always be his glove. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as Arizona’s fifth best prospect before last season and said he has “smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm [that] rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t.” You really have to squint your eyes to see Gregorius as a hitter long-term, but there is no doubt about his glove and he showed that during his rookie season. The kid can pick it.

Chris Owings
Owings, 22, made his brief big league debut late last season after hitting .330/.359/.482 (121 wRC+) with 12 homers and 20 steals in 575 plate appearances in the hitter friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 72nd prospect in the game last month and had this to say:

His 2013 line was boosted by playing in hitter-friendly Triple-A Reno, but Owings’ bat speed is undeniable and his swing is simple and direct. I don’t see loft in the swing for home-run power, but he’s an above-average runner and I think he’ll hit plenty of line-drives to the gaps for 30-40 doubles a year. At shortstop, he has great instincts, quick feet, and a plus arm, everything required to be at least a 60-grade defender there — very much what Didi Gregorius was supposed to be, but with better hit and run tools.

Owings was 17 years old when he signed, so he had 2,000 pro plate appearances before he turned 22 and is more than ready to take over as the everyday shortstop in Arizona now, where he might walk once a week but will contribute in plenty of other ways to keep the job.

Strikeouts have been a concern over the years (23.4% from 2011-12) but Owings cut down on them a bit last year (17.2%), which is a positive sign but hardly definitive proof he has cleared that hurdle. Owings is a right-handed hitter like Ahmed and unlike the lefty swinging Gregorious, and he has the best all-around potential of Arizona’s various young shortstops. He has a chance to contribute both at the plate and in the field, something that isn’t all that easy to find at the position.

* * *

The D’Backs could also push the veteran Cliff Pennington in trades for a catcher, but he has little value. He’s another no-hit, all-glove type like Brendan Ryan and that simply doesn’t fetch much when they aren’t in their early-20s. I mentioned him as a possible target while looking for Ichiro Suzuki trade matches and that was basically a salary dump situation. Owings is the guy to me; he’s the one the Yankees should target because he’s a legit two-way shortstop. Another no-hit, all-glove guy doesn’t make much sense with Ryan already on board.

I really like John Ryan Murphy — I didn’t rank him as the team’s second best prospect for nothing, you know — but man a Murphy for Owings swap sure seems to make sense for both clubs. The Yankees signed Brian McCann long-term this winter and they would still have Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez around as catching depth. I mean, if they’re not open to trading Murphy for a desperately needed MLB-ready shortstop prospect, then what are they going to do with him?

Obviously there is more to be considered than positional needs. How do the D’Backs value Murphy and New York’s other catchers? Prospect-for-prospect trades are rare because teams always love their players more than everyone else’s. Also, is there any urgency to make a trade now, or is Arizona content to wait around and play the market a bit? I’m a fan of getting a deal done quickly just so the player can spend a few weeks in camp working with the coaches and learning the organizational ropes before the season starts. That’s just me. These two clubs appear to match up very well for a trade, but, as we’ve learned over the years, that is hardly a guarantee a deal will actually get done.

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Gonna have to shave that beard, Hanson. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Gonna have to shave that beard, Hanson. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Yankees seem set with the top four in the rotation and their closer, but they could still use some help filling the other seven slots on the pitching staff. Particularly, adding a couple of pitchers to the fifth starter competition could help them.

Going with an internal candidate might seem ideal. If Michael Pineda steps up, clearly the Yankees should go with him in the fifth spot. But if he doesn’t they face a dilemma. David Phelps and Adam Warren might be better suited in relief roles, and the Yankees can use some bullpen reinforcements right now.

By picking up one or two free agents on minor league deals, the Yankees can offer new auditions for the fifth starter spot, perhaps making it easier to use Phelps and Warren in the bullpen if Pineda still needs time in the minors.

The list is thin, of course, and each pitcher is significantly flawed. That’s always the case when looking for players on minor league deals. But each of these three pitchers has at least some upside.

Tommy Hanson

If a 27-year-old former top prospect appears in line for a minor league deal, something must have gone horribly wrong. Hanson hasn’t been the same since a shoulder impingement and rotator cuff injury cut short his 2011 season. Since then he’s gotten progressively worse.

The shoulder injury seems to have taken all the life out of Hanson’s fastball, leaving his two breaking pitches less effective. While it’s possible for a pitcher to live right around 90 mph, where Hanson has been for the past two seasons, something else seems to be missing from that heater.

At just 27 years old, Hanson still has some promise. He did recover some of his velocity late last season, after moving to the pen at the end of September. If that helps him rediscover the pitch, he could become effective again. Even if he can’t break 90 when stretched out over 100 pitches, he could become a viable option in the pen. The Yankees need some help there as well.

The big upside in signing Hanson is that if he does bounce back, he won’t become a free agent until after the 2015 season. That’s a nice little bonus for taking a chance on someone.

Joe Saunders

Under normal circumstances, a 33-year-old lefty with a history of mostly average numbers would find a team willing to offer a MLB deal. But after his 2013 performance, Joe Saunders probably isn’t getting that from a non-desperate team. It’s hard to see how last season could have gone any more wrong for him.

After decent showings in 2012, including a fine run during Baltimore’s playoff push, Saunders moved to Seattle and one of the league’s most favorable pitching environments. The result: the highest home run to fly ball ratio in the majors despite pitching in one of the least favorable HR parks. His 5.26 ERA ranked second-worst among qualified pitchers.

Why even consider Saunders after that debacle? For starters, that performance probably makes him a minor league deal guy. Second, from 2007 through 2012 he produced a 104 ERA+. Third, it’s possible that the spikes in his HR/RB ratio and his BABIP could regress to his career norms. Saunders is still no great shakes, but he’s probably worth a look on a minor league deal.

Jair Jurrjens

The Yankees have been connected to Jurrjens in the past. After the 2011 season the Braves started shopping him around. And why not? He had undergone knee surgery after the 2010 season and saw those problems persist into 2011. Despite that, Jurrjens pitched reasonably well, a 2.96 ERA in 152 innings. It seemed like a great time to sell high.

The Braves found no takers, or at least no takers willing to meet their asking price. What followed was a two-year barrage of home runs and otherwise putrid performances, amounting to a 6.63 ERA in just 55.2 MLB innings. His stints in the minors weren’t particularly impressive, either. It would appear that Jurrjens is finished.

Every pitcher willing to take a minor league deal has to be flawed in some significant way. Jurrjens might be worth the flier because he’s succeeded in the past despite his so-so control that goes along with sub-par stuff. Chances are he’s done, but at 28 years old he’s worth one last look before closing the book on him.

Lightning Round

The MLBTR free agent list has a number of household names who could sign minor league deals this winter. Are any of them in any way appealing?

Roy Oswalt: We wrote about Oswalt earlier this off-season, though mainly as a reliever. Maybe he could bounce back as a starter if given a full spring training. Worth a look, but an aging starter with back problems probably won’t pan out.

Johan Santana: We also wrote about Santana, but it appears he won’t be back until the summer, so we can back off that idea for a while.

Barry Zito: I wanted to find something to like about Zito, I really did. Unfortunately, there’s just nothing.

Jeff Karstens: He essentially had a good year, maybe year and a half, but has been hurt and ineffective otherwise. It’d be nice to bring back an old friend (acquaintance maybe?), but Karstens isn’t going to help even in the best case scenario.

Aaron Harang: Like Saunders, he got thrashed in Seattle last year. Unlike Saunders, he throws right handed and is 36 years old. Harang had a nice peak just as he entered his prime years, but outside of three pretty good seasons, he’s been mediocre to horrible.

Jake Westbrook: The former Yankee looks pretty toast.

Bruce Chen: He actually had a decent season last year, split between the rotation and the pen. But Chen is super homer happy. It’s tough to see that working at all with the Yankees.

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The Yankees are said to be done with their offseason “heavy lifting” following the Masahiro Tanaka signing, but there is still some roster fine-tuning to be done. More than fine-tuning, really. The infield and bench are glaring needs and the final open position player spot figures to address both. The team is said to be leaning towards someone like Eduardo Nunez, Scott Sizemore, or Dean Anna for that spot at the moment.

Aside from Stephen Drew, who may or may not interest the Yankees, the free agent infield market is thin. Michael Young and Placido Polanco are among the biggest name players still available, but New York doesn’t need another player casual fans will recognize. They need someone who can actually produce. The best available option might be someone who is more of a utility man than a full-time guy: the right-handed hitting Jeff Baker. The Yankees showed interest in him last month and they’ve been connected to him at various points in the past. He appears to be a great fit for that last roster spot, at least on paper, but what does he really bring to the table? Let’s look.

The Pros

  • The 32-year-old Baker punishes left-handed pitching. He hit .314/.407/.667 (186 wRC+) against southpaws last season and .287/.342/.496 (124 wRC+) against them over the last three years. All but two of his 18 homers since 2011 have come against lefties.
  • Baker hits the ball to all fields and has power the other way against left-handers (spray chart). He does the most damage when pulling the ball like everyone else, but has power to right and that fits well with Yankee Stadium.
  • Since breaking into the league, Baker has played every position other than shortstop, center field, pitcher, and catcher. He has plenty of experience on the infield and enough in the corner outfield to be more than an emergency fill-in.
  • This is easy to overlook, but Baker knows how to remain productive as a bench player (he has played more than 100 games just once in parts of nine big league seasons). A lot of guys struggle initially when moved into a part-time role. It can be a tough adjustment to make.

The Cons

  • Baker is a pure platoon player. He mustered a weak .204/.250/.286 (41 wRC+) batting line against righties last summer and over the last three seasons, it’s a .213/.251/.298 (45 wRC+) line. Don’t kid yourself: this is a straight platoon player who is completely unusable against same-side pitchers.
  • The various defensive metrics says Baker is a below-average gloveman pretty much everywhere. He’s versatile but not an asset in the field. It has been a few years since he played more than ten games at second or third as well.
  • Injuries have been an issue. Baker suffered a thumb sprain during a high-five last year and missed a month (true story), and he’s also had groin (2011), hand (2009), and elbow (2009) problems over the years.
  • Baker won’t give you anything on the bases. He has gone 13-for-14 in stolen base attempts in his career, but he’s never stolen more than four bags in a season and over the last three years he’s taken the extra-base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) just 25% of the time, well below the 40% league average.

There hasn’t been much interest in Baker this winter despite his obvious usefulness as a right-handed platoon bat. The Rangers want him back according to Gerry Fraley and of course the Yankees have interest, but that’s pretty much it. The Giants checked in earlier this offseason but Andy Baggarly says the two sides stopped talking in December. Baker signed a minor league deal with Texas late last January and he might have to do something similar this winter.

The Yankees could really use a no doubt everday infielder regardless of position. Derek Jeter is going to need to spend time at DH given his age and myriad of leg injuries, plus we all know Brian Roberts is very unlikely to make it through the season healthy. With Mark Teixeira‘s wrist still stiff, Kelly Johnson is the team’s only question-free infielder. Baker wouldn’t improve that situation any, but he would given them a legitimate starting option against southpaws and an awesome pinch-hitter for lefty relievers. He’s a useful but limited player when used properly. Nothing more than that.

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These next five days are going to be all about Masahiro Tanaka. The right-hander has until 5pm ET on Friday to sign with an MLB team, otherwise he’ll return to the Rakuten Golden Eagles for another year. I don’t see him returning to Japan. Especially not with five clubs reportedly making nine-figure offers. The Yankees are said to be one of those teams.

New York will not make another major move until the Tanaka situation is resolved — every club seems to be doing the same thing — and while adding a starter should be the top priority, the team also needs to fill out its bullpen. Just yesterday we heard they are seeking a proven late-inning arm to pair with David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton. Add a bullpen arm is a necessity more than a luxury at this point.

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Nationals would like to trade current setup man and former closer Drew Storen. Washington is in the mix for the still available Grant Balfour, and trading Storen would be a cost-saving move. Does the 26-year-old right-hander make sense for the bullpen-needy Yankees? Let’s look.

The Pros

  • From his big league debut in May 2010 through the 2012 season, Storen posted a 2.96 ERA (3.13 FIP) with good to great strikeout (8.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%), walk (2.80 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%), and ground ball (45.9%) rates in 161 innings. He also handled lefties (.261 wOBA against) as well as he handled righties (.270).
  • Storen is one of those rare relievers who will use four pitches regularly: mid-90 two and four-seam fastballs, upper-80s changeup, and low-80s slider. That deep arsenal is why he had no platoon split.
  • The only thing Storen has not done in his short career is be a long reliever. He has experience closing (52-for-60 in save chances from 2010-12), he’s been a setup man, and he did the middle relief thing earlier in his career. Nothing would be new to him.
  • Storen will earn $3.45M next season, his second of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. He has at least one minor league option remaining and will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season.

The Cons

  • Storen was not particularly good last season, pitching to a 4.52 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 61.2 innings while spending roughly two weeks in Triple-A. Lefties destroyed him (.347 wOBA against) and he had a career worst homer rate (1.02 HR/9) as well.
  • Surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow limited Storen to only 30.1 innings in 2012. His fastball velocity has slipped a bit over the years and his slider whiff rate last year (11.44%) was way lower than the previous three years (15.49%).
  • Storen has had some high-profile meltdowns, specifically blowing a two-run lead in the ninth inning of Game Five of the 2012 NLDS. The Nationals clearly lost confidence in him after that even though they insist otherwise.

It’s possible Storen’s issues last year were related to simple bad ball-in-play luck — his career-high .319 BABIP in 2013 was way higher than his .267 mark from 2010-12. Weird stuff like that can happen when you’re talking about a game that involves hitting a round ball with a round cylindrical bat onto a large swath of grass, especially in the confines of 60-something innings. The elbow surgery, slight velocity decline, and possible confidence hit from blowing the 2012 NLDS may have also been (and likely were) factors.

Given his poor year and the fact that the Nationals have made it clear they’ve lost faith in him, Storen qualifies as a buy-low candidate. He’s still young and the upside is three years of an above-average to lights out late-inning reliever. If worse comes to worst, he could always be non-tendered. It’s difficult to come up with trades involving similar relievers at similar points of their career (Mark Melancon? Addison Reed? Ernesto Frieri?), so who knows what it would take to acquire him. Bill Ladson says the Nationals are looking to trade for a backup catcher, but I doubt Austin Romine gets it down without a good secondary piece. (I don’t mean Eduardo Nunez either.)

It’s worth pointing out that the Yankees drafted Storen out of high school back in the day (34th round in 2007), so they liked him at some point in the not too distant past. There is a tiny bit of familiarity there, but, even if there wasn’t, the club needs late-inning bullpen help and Storen looked to be on the path to becoming one of the best relievers in the game less than 18 months ago. Washington has soured on him and, like teammate Danny Espinosa, there might be an opportunity for the Yankees to acquire him for 75 cents on the dollar. There are some red flags, no doubt, but the same is true of every available reliever.

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Gyorko. (Kevin Liles/Getty)

Gyorko. (Kevin Liles/Getty)

Unless the team changes course in the next few weeks, the Yankees are unlikely to add another infielder on a guaranteed Major League contract this offseason. They’ll attempt to replace the suspended Alex Rodriguez with a bunch of scrap heap pickups and hope one of them sticks at some point. I don’t like that approach but that’s what the team seems to be doing. So be it.

While signing a player to a big league contract may be off the table, the Yankees could still trade for a 40-man roster player. They have a 40-man logjam of their own and would be able to clear a spot (or two) in a deal. Jon Morosi reported yesterday that New York called the Padres about their infield depth in the not too distant past, perhaps right after they learned A-Rod‘s fate. San Diego has so many extra infielders that they had no room on the 40-man for Dean Anna earlier this winter, so they shipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever.

Do any of the Padres’ extra infielders make sense for the Bombers? Surely at least one does, right? Let’s look at what they have to offer.

Forsythe. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Forsythe. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

UTIL Logan Forsythe
Forsythe, who turns 27 today, is the reason for this post, really. Morosi mentioned he was the “most realistic target,” but I don’t know if that is him speculating or reporting the Yankees are targeting him. Either way, Forsythe definitely makes sense for a team in need of both second and third base help. He has extensive experience at both positions — his defense is okay at best, more likely below-average if he plays regularly — and he even started to mix in some corner outfield work last year as well.

Thanks to a year-long battle with plantar fasciitis that prevented him from playing at 100%, Forsythe hit only .214/.281/.332 (73 wRC+) with six homers and six steals in 243 plate appearances last season. Foot and knee problems have hampered him over the years. Forsythe did show a lot of promise during an extended stint as San Diego’s everyday second baseman in 2012, hitting .273/.343/.390 (110 wRC+) with six homers and eight steals in 350 plate appearances. His career numbers in Triple-A are off the charts: .314/.446/.540 (154 wRC+) with 11 homers and 11 steals in 325 plate appearances.

“Forsythe is a natural third baseman who’s below-average at second but is good enough to fill in there for a team without a clear in-house option, and his high contact rates give him offensive value even with his lack of power,” said Keith Law (subs. req’d) following that strong 2012 season. Forsythe is a) still in his pre-arbitration years, b) a right-handed hitter who has mashed lefties in the show (124 wRC+), c) capable of playing two positions of need, and d) a buy-low candidate because his stock is down following the disappointing year and injury. If the Yankees aren’t going to spend big on a third baseman, he makes an awful lot of sense as a low-profile trade target.

2B/3B Jedd Gyorko
Gyorko is probably the least available Padres infielder. The 25-year-old hit .249/.301/.444 (110 wRC+) with 23 homers in 525 plate appearances as a rookie last season while playing solid defense at second and third bases. Scouting reports and his minor league track record suggest the power is real and his walk rate will eventually come up. San Diego is going to build around Gyorko and they’re more likely to sign him long-term than trade him for help elsewhere. His age, right-handed pop, and defensive versatility would be perfect for the Yankees. Acquiring him just isn’t all that realistic, however.

(Denis Poroy/Getty)

Headley. (Denis Poroy/Getty)

3B Chase Headley
The Yankees have been trying to trade for Headley for years, but the team’s lack of viable trade chips has hurt their pursuit. He is entering his walk year and is projected to make $10M, which isn’t all that pricey for the Padres anymore thanks to their local television deal as well as the new national television contracts. Signing him to a long-term extension is probably off the table though.

Headley, 29, was an MVP candidate in 2012, hitting .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers and 17 steals to go along with excellent third base defense. He dropped down to .250/.347/.400 (113 wRC+) with 13 homers and eight steals last year after breaking a thumb sliding into a base in Spring Training and coming back sooner than expected. A broken finger sabotaged his 2011 season, but otherwise Headley has consistently been an above-average hitter with double-digit homers, double-digit steals, and strong defense since becoming a full-timer in 2008.

I’ve always been a big Headley fan and think he’d be a pretty damn close to a star if you get him out of Petco Park. A switch-hitter with power and patience (11.8% walk rate since 2011) who steals bases and plays the hell out of third base? I’ll take that player on my team everyday of the week. Trading for Headley would be an enormous boost for the 2014 Yankees but it doesn’t seem like the two clubs match up for a deal right now. They’ll have to wait and pony up nine figures in free agency next winter.

SS Ryan Jackson
The Yankees don’t have much need for the 25-year-old Jackson, who is an excellent defender but can’t hit a lick. They have the same player in the older and more expensive Brendan Ryan. The Padres would probably be much more open to moving Jackson than incumbent shortstop and stolen base machine Everth Cabrera despite his 50-game Biogenesis suspension. If the Yankees and Padres are going to get together for a trade involving an infielder, Forsythe is the most realistic target by far.

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(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

Three years ago, the Yankees gave veteran right-hander Luis Ayala an opportunity to bring his career back from the dead. He had not been an effective big leaguer in four years (or a big leaguer at all in two years) when they signed him to a minor league deal, but he impressed in winter ball and the team gave him a chance. Ayala wound up making the club and having a strong season in a middle relief role.

The Yankees now find themselves in a similar situation as three years ago. They need some bullpen arms and Ayala remains unsigned, looking for a job. The Tigers, Indians, Orioles, Red Sox, Rays, Dodgers, Giants, and Phillies have all expressed interest in him according to Tim Dierkes and Chris Cotillo, enough teams that he is holding out for a multi-year contract. I’m not sure if that will happen at age 35 (36 on Sunday), but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Does a reunion with Ayala make sense for the Yankees? Let’s look at what he has to offer.

The Pros

  • Since resurfacing with the Yankees three years ago, Ayala has remained effective and pitched to a 2.58 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 164 innings. He’s been outperforming his FIP pretty much his entire career. At this point we have to say it’s a skill, not a fluke.
  • Ayala is a classic sinker/slider guy who gets grounders (51.4% since 2011) and limits walks (2.58 BB/9 and 6.8 BB% since 2011). His trademark sinker continues to sit right around 90 mph.
  • He hasn’t had a platoon split these last three years. He’s held righties to a .311 wOBA (53.8% grounders) and lefties to a .318 wOBA (48.3% grounders) since 2011.
  • Ayala has done it all out of the bullpen, so he has experience in a number of roles and is versatile. He closed earlier in his career, he’s been a setup man, a mop-up man, a middle reliever, you name it. Hooray flexibility.

The Cons

  • Ayala is a low strikeout pitcher (6.15 K/9 and 16.1% since 2011) and his strikeout rate is slowly trending in the wrong direction: 6.27 K/9 (16.7 K%) in 2011, 6.12 K/9 (15.9 K%) in 2012, and 6.00 K/9 (15.0 K%) in 2013.
  • Although his overall platoon split is small, lefties have been giving Ayala a harder time in recent years. They tagged him for a .301 wOBA in 2011, a .322 wOBA in 2012, and a .346 wOBA in 2013. He might devolve into a pure righty specialist in 2014.
  • Ayala is no stranger to the DL. He missed more than two months with an axiety disorder last year and he spend a month on the sidelines with a shoulder problem in 2011. Ayala also had shoulder (2003) and elbow (2005-2007) problems earlier in his career.

The Yankees and Ayala are already familiar with each other from their previous marriage, so both sides know what they’re getting into. The team knows what he is like in the clubhouse, knows his medical history, all that stuff. Ayala knows the coaching staff, a bunch of guys on the team, and the expectations that come with wearing pinstripes. I don’t think that stuff is a huge deal — especially when talking about a middle reliever on a short-term deal — but it’s not a negative.

When the Yankees let Ayala walk following the 2011 season, I was totally cool with it because he is exactly the kind of pitcher you want to cut ties with a year too early rather than a year too late. He’s since gone on to have two strong seasons with the Orioles and Braves, so his success in the Bronx was not a one-year fluke. The declining strikeout rate and decrease in effectiveness against lefties are red flags, no doubt about, but not big enough to scare me away from a one-year deal. Multiple years though? No thanks.

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Masahiro Tanaka might be on our minds, but he’s no sure thing. Plenty of teams will bid for his services, and more than one source considers the Mariners, not the Yankees, as the frontrunners.* If they don’t land Tanaka they’ll certainly have to look elsewhere for a starter. Even if they do, it wouldn’t hurt to add another reliable arm to the fold.

*The Yankees simply can’t lose Tanaka to the Mariners, can they? Imagine losing the top pitcher and the top hitter on the FA market to the friggin’ Mariners. I can’t see Yankees’ ownership letting that happen.

Earlier in the off-season, after the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, we heard rumblings about Homer Bailey of the Reds. After losing Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds need both a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They have ample pitching, and might not be able to sign Bailey beyond 2014, after which he becomes a free agent. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer speculates that the Reds could create some payroll space for more moves (GM Walt Jocketty says they’re out of money) by trading Bailey and his projected $9 million salary. If that’s the case, the Yankees will certainly be on the phone.


  • After a rough start to his career, Bailey has turned into a fine pitcher. He might not be an ace, but he’s solidified himself as a No. 2 or No. 3 option in the last couple of seasons.
  • In the last two seasons Bailey has shown great durability, making 65 starts and throwing 517 innings, 12th most in baseball. His 3.58 ERA ranks 35th (out of 74) among qualified starters, and his 5.7 bWAR ranks 29th out of 80 pitchers who made at least 50 starts over the last two seasons.
  • Fearful of an NL pitcher entering the Yankee Stadium bandbox? Bailey has made his home starts at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which has had a higher home run park factor than Yankee Stadium for the past three years.*
  • Bailey has a relatively clean bill of health. After some shoulder issues earlier in his career — he missed time with inflammation in 2010 and an impingement in 2011 (plus a shoulder sprain while hitting that year), he has missed no time in 2012 or 2013.
  • In the last few seasons Bailey has started employing a two-seamer more frequently, resulting in more ground balls (though he is by no means a ground ball pitcher). An increase in that trend can go a long way in Yankee Stadium.


  • Bailey won’t come for free, of course. The Reds value him greatly, and have even discussed an extension with him. Chances are they can’t afford him, but he is a good pitcher on a contender. They don’t get dealt often.
  • Brett Gardner might seem like a surplus player at this point, but he can, and likely will, play an important role on the 2014 Yankees. Without a permanent DH, the Yankees will have plenty of at-bats for four outfielders. Absent Gardner, that becomes Ichiro (or perhaps, best case, Zoilo Almonte). That’s quite a downgrade.
  • Because it appears the Reds don’t need to deal Bailey, they could demand more than just Gardner, which makes the deal even less palatable.
  • Looking for a con for Bailey himself…it’s sometimes a dicey proposition adding a fly ball NL pitcher to Yankee Stadium, but Bailey does show signs that he can adapt.

In himself Bailey looks like a fine option for the Yankees. Even if they don’t trade for him, they could seek him out when he hits free agency after the 2014 season. Of course, with a third straight strong campaign he could be in line for a nine-figure contract.

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(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Two weeks and three days from now, we will know where Masahiro Tanaka will spend the 2014 season. He’s either going to sign with one of the 30 MLB teams by 5pm ET on January 24th or return to the Rakuten Golden Eagles for another year. I like having a hard deadline like that. Wish they could do it for every free agent.

The Yankees are expected to pursue Tanaka very aggressively and in fact, they’ve already made contact with his agent Casey Close. They haven’t made an offer yet, at least as far as we know, but that will happen at some point relatively soon. The new posting system means the price for Tanaka will be enormous, larger than other Japanese imports and easily the richest deal ever given to an international player. (The current record is the $68M the White Sox gave Jose Abreu a few weeks ago.)

Who is Tanaka though? I mean, we know who he is, but what are his strengths and weaknesses? How is he expected to fare in Major League Baseball compared to the less competitive Nippon Professional Baseball? We’ve read bits and pieces about the right-hander in recent months but I think it’s time to put together a one-stop shop for all things Tanaka. That’s what I tried to do with this post — create a smorgasbord of information on the guy. If you have a question about him, hopefully the answer is here. Let’s dive in.

The Vitals

Born: November 1st, 1988 (age 25)
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 205 lbs.
Bats/Throws: right/right
(i.e. short version of Wikipedia): Tanaka drew up in Itami, a suburb of Osaka in southern Japan. He attended Komazawa University Tomakomai High School in Hokkaido, which is a couple hundred miles from home in northern Japan. The Rakuten Golden Eagles, Nippon Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, and Yokohoma BayStars all selected Tanaka with their first round pick in the 2006 NPB draft. The teams then drew straws and Rakuten won his rights. The NPB draft is weird.

Tanaka’s nickname is Ma-kun and it’s often abbreviated to just Ma. It doesn’t actually mean anything from what I can tell, it’s just a high school nickname that stuck. Tanaka’s wife is Mai Satoda, a big time pop star in Japan.

Scouting Reports

This seems like the next logical step in this information overload. Here is a scouting report on Tanaka from Ben Badler (subs. req’d) back in August:

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Tanaka throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 96 mph. Even though Tanaka can reach the mid-90s, his fastball is the pitch that gives some scouts pause because it comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable than the velocity might suggest. Tanaka has two secondary pitches that have earned grades of 60 or better on the 20-80 scouting scale, including a 70 splitter with late downward action to keep hitters off his fastball. His low- to mid-80s slider is another plus weapon, while he’ll mix in a curveball as well.

And here is another scouting report, courtesy of Keith Law (subs. req’d) and his top 50 free agents list from November (Tanaka ranked third behind Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury):

Tanaka used to pitch away from contact, but in the past two years, he has become more aggressive within the zone with his fastball, and his splitter is a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and his slider will flash above-average to plus, while he mixes in a below-average curveball and a cutter, the same “kitchen-sink” approach pitchers often use in NPB but have to simplify when they come to MLB.

Tanaka’s delivery doesn’t include as much hip rotation as many pitchers developed in Japan; he hides the ball behind him but doesn’t generate much torque, and he’s got a big hook in the back of his delivery. He also missed a month with an undisclosed injury in spring 2012, which has to be a concern given his high workloads dating to high school.

The optimistic view of Tanaka sees incredible control and at least one pitch, possibly two, to miss MLB hitters’ bats, making him worth the $15 million-plus it’ll take in annual salary to sign him. There are absolutely reasons for skepticism here, but the same holds true for every free-agent starter on this list.

Courtesy of Sweeny Murti, Rakuten closer and former Yankees hurler Darrell Rasner recently spoke about Tanaka as a teammate and gave us a glimpse of how he’s been using his workouts to prepare for MLB:

He’s a good teammate. I’ve watched him last couple years and he’s studied English, he’s worked really hard on that. He was very good with us foreign guys (one-time Yankees Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee and former Phillies/Astros/Royals pitcher Brandon Duckworth also played for Rakuten in 2013). Just him working English and trying to communicate with the non-Japanese speaking players was really cool. A great teammate, fun in the clubhouse. His work ethic is awesome and just all around good guy, good heart.

The ball is different. The major league ball is a lot slicker and a little bit bigger. I don’t know what it is, but (Japanese baseballs) do have some (grip) to them. But (Tanaka) plays catch with the major league ball and throws bullpens with the major league ball. I personally don’t think its going to be a big thing for him. His competitiveness will get him through little things like that that other guys complain about. He’s going to get through those.

This last nugget from Jeff Passan back in November isn’t really a scouting report, but it does shed some light on how the Yankees view Tanaka:

Yankees officials are not concerned the rough tenures of Japanese pitchers Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa would in any way repeat themselves with Tanaka. In fact, Yankees scouts compare his temperament and makeup to a player with far more success in New York: Hideki Matsui.

In other parts of their write-ups, both Balder and Law says Tanaka is viewed as someone who can step right into a big league rotation and be a number two starter almost immediately. It’s worth nothing other successful Japanese starters have gone through what amounts to a one-year transition period — they really took off in their second MLB season, not the first.

Obligatory Video

Because we have to, here is some video of Tanaka from the 2013 season:

That’s every one of his strikeouts, both regular season and postseason. I didn’t bother to count but there are around 200 of ‘em.

Obligatory Stats

Because we have to, here are Tanaka’s career stats with Rakuten:

’07 18 Rakuten 11 7 3.82 28 4 186.1 183 83 79 17 68 196 1.347 0.8 3.3 9.5 2.88
’08 19 Rakuten 9 7 3.49 24 5 172.2 171 71 67 9 54 159 1.303 0.5 2.8 8.3 2.94
’09 20 Rakuten 15 6 2.33 24 6 189.2 170 51 49 13 43 171 1.123 0.6 2.0 8.1 3.98
’10 21 Rakuten 11 6 2.50 20 8 155.0 159 47 43 9 32 119 1.232 0.5 1.9 6.9 3.72
’11 22 Rakuten 19 5 1.27 27 14 226.1 171 35 32 8 27 241 0.875 0.3 1.1 9.6 8.93
’12 23 Rakuten 10 4 1.87 22 8 173.0 160 45 36 4 19 169 1.035 0.2 1.0 8.8 8.89
’13 24 Rakuten 24 0 1.27 27 8 212.0 168 35 30 6 32 183 0.943 0.3 1.4 7.8 5.72
7 Seasons 99 35 2.30 172 53 1315.0 1182 367 336 66 275 1238 1.108 0.5 1.9 8.5 4.50
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/6/2014.

Tanaka won the Sawamura Award (Cy Young equivalent) in both 2011 and 2013. Otherwise the stats looks good to me. I reckon the guy can pitch.

Stats, Now With Context

Did you know that offense (particularly power) had declined so much in Japan these last few years that NPB started using what amounted to a juiced ball in 2013 and didn’t bother to tell the Japanese players’ union until midseason? True story. Because of that, we need to add some context to Tanaka’s stats otherwise we don’t know what they’re telling us.

Here’s a table from David Golebiewski that compares Tanaka’s performance over the last three seasons to the performances of other NPB aces during the three years before they came to MLB:

By now you know how ERA+ works, right? One hundred is league average and the higher the number, the better the pitcher performed relative to rest of the league. It’s the same idea for K+, BB+, and HR+, just using strikeout, walk, and homerun rates, respectively. Got it? Good.

As you can see, Tanaka’s performance relative to the rest of NPB these last three years is very much on par with Yu Darvish’s performance the three years before he came stateside. He’s also been way better than Daisuke Matsuzaka was before he came to MLB, ditto Kei Igawa and Hiroki Kuroda and pretty much everyone else. As far as NPB pitchers go, Tanaka has been as good as it gets.

About That Workload

Recently, both Tom Verducci and Passan noted Tanaka’s massive career workload is a red flag. And make no mistake, it has been massive: over 1,300 innings before his 25th birthday, not counting the postseason. The only MLB pitcher to approach that number in recent years is Felix Hernandez, who chucked 1,388.1 innings before turning 25. Clayton Kershaw (1,180), CC Sabathia (1,165.1), Matt Cain (1,095.2), Dontrelle Willis (1,022.2), and Jon Garland (1,009) are the only other pitchers this century to throw more than a thousand innings before their 25th birthday. Here’s the full list, if you’re interested.

Of course, bulk innings are only one piece of the workload equation. Total pitches are another factor to consider and Tanaka sure has thrown a ton of pitches over the years. Here are some numbers from Passan:

Over the last five years, he has averaged more pitches per start, 113.3, than any pitcher in the major leagues. The closest is Justin Verlander at 112.9 and Felix Hernandez ranks second at 106.5. And it’s not just the per-game haul. Some of the individual outings Tanaka has logged horrify the pitch-count phobes.

There were the 742 pitches Tanaka threw over six starts in a two-week span as a 17-year-old at the national high school baseball tournament. And the back-to-back 137- and 142-pitch starts at 20 years old. The coup de grace came during the Japan Series this season, in which Tanaka went 160 pitches during a Game 6 loss, then came back the next day and threw another 15 in relief to close out Rakuten’s championship victory.

Amazingly, Passan never mentions in his article that NPB starters are on a seven-day schedule, not a five-day schedule like MLB starters (Verducci mentions it in passing). They start once a week in Japan, which allows their pitchers to throw a few extra pitches each time out. So while Tanaka has a lot of high individual game pitch counts, he also had extra rest. Here’s another note on his workload from J.J. Cooper:

Over the past four seasons, Tanaka has averaged eight innings per start and he’s pitched a complete game in nearly 40 percent of his starts. Over that same time frame Justin Verlander, considered the iron man of current U.S. starting pitchers, has averaged just under seven innings an outing and has pitched a complete game in 10 percent of his starts.

But Tanaka has been starting only once a week, not once every five days. And he’s been doing it against lineups where he can quite clearly gear up for the middle of the lineup while cruising through the bottom third with lesser stuff, something BA’s Ben Badler noted frequently during the 2013 season.

Does that mean Tanaka’s workload is not a concern? Of course not. Throwing so many innings and pitches — especially at such a young age — is generally a bad idea. Pitching is an unnatural act and doing it a lot will lead to injury. It’s inevitable. The injury could come next week, next year, next decade, who knows? But do it long enough and you’re going to get hurt, guaranteed.

Dice-K and (to a lesser extent) Darvish were subject to similarly high workloads at a young age and were mostly lauded for being durable. That tone has changed in recent years, especially since Matsuzaka broke down two years after coming to MLB. As Verducci wrote two years ago, the Rangers made an effort to control Darvish’s workload after signing him by reducing his side work and using off-days to give him extra rest throughout the season. Tanaka’s next team figures to do something similar but there is no sugarcoating it: his workload is a red flag.

Force Those Comps

I hate comps, the cool shorthand for player comparisons. They’re forced more often than not, especially when it comes to performance. Tanaka is from Japan and therefore we should only compare him to other Japanese pitchers, right? No. Well, not unless we’re talking about workload/transition from NPB to MLB kinda stuff.

If we must (and I guess we must) come up with some comps for Tanaka, we should compare him to similar pitchers regardless of whether they were born in Japan, the Dominican Republic, or Southern California. We should compare him to other pitchers who don’t walk anyone and operate with a low-90s fastball, one knockout offspeed pitch (preferably a splitter), plus another very good offspeed offering.

Jim Bowden mentioned Dan Haren as a comp for Tanaka while Tony Blengino (former stats guy in the Mariners’ front office) mentioned Jered Weaver. Both pitchers are workhorse righties with average-ish fastballs and an array of secondary pitches. Haren in particular seems like a strong comp* because he used a splitter as well, though he is several inches taller than Tanaka and that’s something to consider. Pre-shoulder surgery Freddy Garcia could be another comp as well.

* Haren averaged 4.7 bWAR and 227.1 innings per season from age 25-30, in case you’re wondering. Everyone should be thrilled if Tanaka turns into Haren.

It’s also worth pointing that like Tanaka, both Haren and Weaver work up in the zone with their fastballs and they’ve succeeded in MLB by generating weak fly balls. They don’t get many grounders but the fly balls they get usually don’t travel very far. Here are their batted ball distance charts, courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps:

Haren Weaver Batted Ball Distances

Haren is on the left and Weaver is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view, if you must.

The red dots are individual fly balls and the vertical clusters are seasons, so that’s 2007-2013 from left to right. As you can see, both guys have consistently averaged 275-ish feet per fly ball over the years. A 275-ish foot fly ball is an out with a defensively competent outfield. There’s a reason Haren (.288 BABIP from age 25-30) and especially Weaver (.268 BABIP from age 25-30) have enjoyed lower than league average (.297) batting averages on balls in play over the years. Those weakly hit fly balls are easy outs.

Anyway, back to Tanaka. Dave Cameron came up with some statistical comps — I don’t necessarily agree with his 46-54% ground ball rate assumption, but let’s roll with it — and the group ranges from awesome (James Shields, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke) to eh (Jon Niese, Wandy Rodriguez, Edwin Jackson). More than anything, Cameron’s list reinforces that the range of possible outcomes is huge. We can slap a comp on any player but they’re usually unfair and almost always incorrect. Masahiro Tanaka isn’t the next Darvish. He isn’t the next Igawa either. He isn’t the next anyone. He’s the first Masahiro Tanaka.

Let’s Talk Money

Thanks to the new posting system, Tanaka is a free agent with a $20M surcharge called a “release fee.” Only the team that signs him has to send the $20M to Rakuten and apparently the release fee is paid out in installments over several years, so it isn’t even a huge one-time payment (like posting fees under the old system) that would burden a small market club. The new system is very player friendly but it really sucks for his former team in Japan. Hard to understand why NPB agreed to it.

The FanGraphs crowdsourcing says most fans expect Tanaka to receive a six-year contract in the $120M-124M range, and according to our poll, that’s maximum most RAB readers are comfortable paying him. That’s just the contract, so add in the $20M release fee on top of that and total outlay is $140M-144M for six years. There’s always a chance some team will go nuts and blow everyone else out of the water with a big offer, but six years and $120M-ish seems like the contract benchmark right now.

The Rangers paid a total of $107.7M for Darvish (contract plus posting fee) while the Red Sox paid $103.1M for Dice-K. Tanaka has way more negotiating leverage than both of those guys thanks to the new system, plus teams have more money to spend right now than ever before. It really is a perfect storm — the available free agent pitchers are all sketchy, the new national television contracts just kicked in, and the new posting system was implemented.

(Adam Pretty/Getty)

(Adam Pretty/Getty)

Given the Darvish and Dice-K costs plus general inflation, that $144M or so outlay for Tanaka actually seems like it might be a little light. I wonder if it’ll end up being closer to $160M between the contract and release fee. Either way, it’s the shape of that financial commitment that hurts the Yankees and really all big market teams. Only the contract is subject to the luxury tax, not the release fee. Darvish and Dice-K commitments were basically split right down the middle, posting fee and contract. Tanaka will be almost all contract.

The Yankees spent the last two years making move to help them get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 but lol that went right out the window as soon as they missed the postseason last year and lost nearly $60M in ticket revenue alone. Even with Robinson Cano in Seattle, the Yankees are going to be over the luxury tax threshold this coming year no matter what happens with Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension. There’s certainly no way they’ll be under if they sign Tanaka or a similarly priced pitcher.

A six-year contract worth $120M contract carries a $20M average annual value, so adding Tanaka would instantly cost the team $10M in luxury tax money next year. If they are over the $189M threshold in 2015 and 2016 — seems likely given their current contract commitments — that’s another $20M total in luxury tax money thanks to Tanaka. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2016 season and who knows what will happen with the luxury tax then. Given how healthy the game is financially, I think they’ll have to raise the threshold to $200M or so at the very least. But I digress.

Tanaka would not be a $140M-ish commitment for the Yankees. He would really be something like a $170M-ish commitment thanks to the luxury tax, maybe more depending on what happens with the next CBA. Thanks to their payroll level, every dollar the Yankees spend on player contracts from here on out is really $1.50. That’s not insignificant and, as Hal Steinbrenner has made abundantly clear the last two years, ownership is very concerned about the bottom line.

The Competition

I looked at the competition for Tanaka a few weeks ago, but since then Badler reported the Mariners are seen as the favorite to sign him. At the same time, Ken Rosenthal reports the Mariners’ front office needs to persuade ownership to open up the wallet to make another big move(s). Given the size of Tanaka’s inevitable contract, just about every GM will have to convince their owner he’s worth it. I’m not sure Seattle is unique in that regard.

Based on everything we’ve heard in recent weeks, here’s how the competition for Tanaka stands right now:

  • Serious Bidders: Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners, Yankees
  • Second Tier Threats: Angels, Blue Jays, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox, Tigers
  • Interested But Financially Disadvantaged: Braves, Diamondbacks, Indians, Orioles, Pirates

That’s half the league right there. Some of those second tier clubs could simply be playing possum and preparing a massive offer for Tanaka. They all have the financial wherewithal to make a market changing offer if ownership really wanted.

The great unknown here is Tanaka’s personal preferences. Is he simply going to shoot for the largest payday? Or does he want to go somewhere where he’s comfortable and the travel back to Japan is relatively easy? Is being able to wear #18 — considered the “ace number” in Japan — important to him? That would put the Yankees (Kuroda) and Mariners (Hisashi Iwakuma) at a disadvantage. Those and a million other questions can be answered only by Tanaka and his agent. The Yankees’ greatest advantage here is their money — they can match pretty much any offer he gets if they really wanted — and maybe (only maybe) the presence of Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki as well. Just because they’re all Japanese doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to get along, you know.

Tanaka is the first truly great Japanese pitcher who will be able to pick his MLB team. Darvish and Dice-K were stuck going through the posting system and both Kuroda and Iwakuma were considered good but not great pitchers when they came over as free agents. (Both have exceeded expectations in MLB.) By my unofficial count, 37 players have come over from Japan as free agents and there was no discernible location bias: 14 signed with East Coast teams (including NPB stars like Hideki Matsui and Kaz Matsui), 12 signed with West Coast teams (Kenji Johjima and Hideo Nomo), and the other 11 signed with Middle America teams (Tadahito Iguchi and Kosuke Fukudome). Japanese players have not shown an inclination to stay on the West Coast so the travel back to Japan is easier, but Tanaka may feel differently. We just don’t know.

* * *

Thanks to the new posting system, Tanaka is the most compelling free agent in recent memory. He’s a complete unknown at the big league level yet the tools are there for him to be an impact player right away. It’s almost as if a draft prospect like 2009 Stephen Strasburg or 2011 Gerrit Cole were a free agent, except you don’t have to worry about stretching him out to 200 innings. Some team — and I truly hope it is the Yankees — will pay Tanaka a boatload of money without being completely sure of what they’re buying.

Hopefully any and all of your questions where answered in this post but I really doubt it. So much about this situation and Tanaka himself is mystery to us, from where we sit. Despite all the money being thrown around and all the scouting that has taken place — the Yankees have heavily scouted Tanaka, including sending both assistant GM Billy Eppler and former special assignment scout Don Wakamatsu to see him — no one knows how this guy will fare in MLB until he gets up on a mound. I find this whole situation fascinating and I’m really looking forward to seeing it play out.

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