Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luis Valbuena

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

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

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

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

Offensive Performance

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

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

luis-valbuena-contact

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

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

luis-valbuena-spray-chart

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

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

Defensive Performance

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

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

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

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

Injury History

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

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

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

Contract Estimates

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

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

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

Does He Fit The Yankees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Left-Handed Relievers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Blevins

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.P. Howell

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

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

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

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

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

Boone Logan

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

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

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

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

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

Javier Lopez

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis Wood

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Scouting the Trade Market: Nate Jones

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

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

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

Recent Performance

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

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

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

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

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

Present Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Injury History

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

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

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

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

Contract Status

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

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

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

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

What Would It Take?

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

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

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

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

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

So What About The Yankees?

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

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

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

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

Scouting the Trade Market: Jose Quintana

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

Recent Performance

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

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

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

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

Present Stuff

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

jose-quintana-pitch-selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injury History

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

Contract Status

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

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

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

Trade Benchmarks

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

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

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

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

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

So What About The Yankees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scouting the Trade Market: Brandon McCarthy

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

Now that they have a new DH, the Yankees figure to focus on “pitching, pitching, pitching” this offseason. The free agent class really stinks though, especially with Rich Hill now off the board. Hal Steinbrenner recently said the Yankees could go into Spring Training with competition for two rotation spots, but I know I’m not alone when I say I’d like to see the Yankees add some pitching depth. Starters and relievers, ideally.

Because the free agent class is so thin, the Yankees and every other team figure to turn to the trade market. A young pitcher with considerable upside would be ideal given the club’s long-term outlook. Unfortunately every other team is looking for the exact same player, which complicates things. Acquiring a pitcher like that is going to cost you. The Yankees might have to get creative to address their rotation this winter, both short and long-term.

The Dodgers are among the few teams with excess pitching depth, so much so that Buster Olney reports they are shopping some veteran starters, including Brandon McCarthy. This isn’t the first time the Dodgers have shopped McCarthy — reports at the trade deadline indicated he was part of a proposed Yasiel Puig-for-Ryan Braun trade as a way to offseason salary — so he’s very available. Does a reunion make sense? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

The Dodgers gave the 33-year-old McCarthy a four-year deal worth $48M two offseasons ago, and in the first two years of the contract, he threw only 63 total innings due to Tommy John surgery. He had a 5.29 ERA (4.62 FIP) in those 63 total innings, including a 4.95 ERA (3.70 FIP) in 40 innings this past season. McCarthy’s strikeout rate (25.7%) was good. The walk (15.2%) and ground ball (34.7%) rates … not so much.

McCarthy returned from Tommy John surgery as a starter this past July, and after five good starts back, the wheels came off. He completely lost the zone in August and walked exactly five in three consecutive starts. McCarthy is usually an extreme strike thrower — he hadn’t walked as many as four in a start since 2009 — and he admitted to developing a case of the yips.

“Coming back from Tommy John, you’re not worried your career is over. The yips was a whole different thing,” said McCarthy to Eric Stephen in September. “(You’re thinking) ‘I don’t ever know if I can throw a baseball in a competitive Major League Baseball game.'”

McCarthy bounced back with a strong start in September — he walked one in 5.2 innings — before being shifted to the bullpen as part of a postseason roster audition. He made one relief appearance, faced six batters, and retired none of them. Five hits, one walk, six runs, zero outs. Ouch. That disaster outing raised McCarthy’s overall season numbers from a 3.60 ERA (3.62 FIP) to that 4.95 ERA (3.70 FIP).

Back in 2014, his last healthy season, McCarthy authored a 4.05 ERA (3.55 FIP) in exactly 200 innings. That includes a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) with 22.2% strikeouts, 3.5% walks, and 49.1% grounders in 14 starts and 90.1 innings with the Yankees after coming over from the Diamondbacks. That’s the McCarthy whatever team acquires him will be hoping to get.

Current Stuff

When the Yankees had McCarthy for those few months in 2014, he operated with three low-to-mid-90s fastballs (four-seam, sinker, cutter) and a hard low-80s slurve. The Yankees famously allowed him to start throwing the cutter again after Arizona had him put him on the shelf for whatever reason. “I feel like myself again … I feel like I need that pitch to be successful,” he said after the trade.

That was two years and one elbow ligament ago. Things change. In his nine starts back following Tommy John surgery this year, McCarthy averaged right around 92 mph with his three fastballs — he did hump the four-seamer up as high as 95.5 mph — and 80 mph with the breaking ball. That’s down a tick from his time in New York. Here’s some video from his first start back from elbow reconstruction this year:

Let’s quickly compare the effectiveness of McCarthy’s individual pitches this year to his time with the Yankees, just to see how far away he is from being that guy.

  • Four-seamer: 11.9% whiffs/25.0% grounders in 2016 vs. 12.3%/40.4% in 2014
  • Sinker: 5.4%/54.5% in 2016 vs. 10.6%/54.1% in 2014
  • Cutter: 8.9%/30.0% in 2016 vs. 7.9%/44.4% in 2014
  • Slurve: 5.6%/34.2% in 2016 vs. 12.5%/61.7% in 2014

A decline pretty much across the board, which isn’t the most surprising thing in the world considering it was his first few starts back from major elbow reconstruction. Also, keep in mind we’re dealing with small sample sizes here. We have no choice, really. McCarthy didn’t spend much time with the Yankees and he hasn’t thrown much since returning from Tommy John surgery.

There are two pieces of good news, I’d say. One, McCarthy retained most of his velocity. He didn’t come back throwing in the upper-80s or anything like that. And two, he still has all his pitches. He’s regained feel for everything. Acquiring McCarthy means hoping he looks more and more like the 2014 version of himself as he gets further away from elbow reconstruction. Reasonable? Sure. Not guaranteed to happen though.

Injury History

This is where it gets really ugly. McCarthy has been on the disabled list every season but one since 2007. That was his 2014 season with the D-Backs and Yankees, conveniently his contract year. Good timing, I’d say. McCarthy’s list of injuries is scary. He’s not a guy who missed some time here and there with a pulled hamstring and things like that. Check it out:

  • 2007: Missed more than two months with a blister and a stress fracture in his shoulder.
  • 2008: Missed almost the entire season with a finger tendon strain and forearm soreness.
  • 2009: Missed more than three months with a stress fracture in his shoulder.
  • 2010: Missed almost the entire season with a stress fracture in his shoulder.
  • 2011: Missed seven weeks with a stress fracture in his shoulder.
  • 2012: Missed three months with a shoulder strain. Also took a line drive to the head in September that required emergency surgery to treat a skull fracture and epidural hemorrhage. Eek.
  • 2013: Missed two months with shoulder soreness.
  • 2014: Healthy!
  • 2015: Missed almost the entire season with Tommy John surgery.
  • 2016: Missed the first three months of the season with Tommy John surgery. Also missed six weeks late in the season with a hip issue.

Goodness. Guys get blisters and the line drive to the head was nothing more than a tragic fluke. But fractured shoulders and torn elbow ligaments? That’s scary. The stress fractures are recurring too. If it happens once, you kinda hope that’s the end of it. When it happens year after year, you have to be concerned going forward. How could you not be?

It’s important to note McCarthy changed up his workout program during the 2013-14 offseason in an effort to keep his shoulder healthy. It wasn’t just offseason workouts either. He does more intense work during the season as well. Nick Piecoro wrote about it a few years ago. The new workouts and elbow ligament could bode well for the future. Given his history though, it’s hard to count on McCarthy to be a 30-start guy going forward.

Contract Status

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

The Yankees tried to re-sign McCarthy two years ago, but they weren’t going to come anywhere close to guaranteeing him four years given his injury history. I wanted McCarthy back too, and I was hoping two years would get it done. Three years made me really nervous. Four years? Forget it. It was perfectly reasonable to walk away at that point.

Los Angeles gave McCarthy that four-year deal worth $48M, and guess what? It was front-loaded. He received a $6M signing bonus and $11M in salary in both 2015 and 2016. He’s owed $10M in both 2016 and 2017. What kind of pitcher can you buy for $10M annually in this free agent class? Not a very good one. Ivan Nova might get $13M a season this winter. Maybe more. Ivan Nova!

Now, $10M a season is not nothing. In the world of starting pitchers though, paying $20M across two years would be a relative bargain if McCarthy gives you, say, 300 league average innings. The pitching market is getting out of hand. The Yankees are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold at some point soon, and taking on a $10M luxury tax hit for a starter who is no lock to a) stay healthy, or b) be effective, is a bit dicey.

What About The Yankees?

The key to a potential McCarthy trade would be the intentions of the Dodgers. Are they looking to salary dump him? The Dodgers are reportedly working to lower payroll, partly because they have to meet MLB’s mandated debt limit within two years. Trading McCarthy and freeing up $10M this year and next would certainly help do that.

Or do the Dodgers see him as a legitimate trade piece and expect something of substance in return? That’s my guess. The free agent pitching market stinks and I’m sure more than a few teams would be willing to roll the dice with McCarthy on what is essentially a two-year deal worth $20M. His trade value isn’t high given the injuries, but chances are you won’t get him for a player to be named later or cash either.

The Yankees know McCarthy, and the fact they tried to re-sign him two years ago is an indication they like something about him. Maybe the Tommy John surgery and case of the yips — to be fair, McCarthy seemed to get over that, he walked only two of the 26 batters he faced after those three straight starts with five walks — has changed their mind. It’s certainly possible. Lots can change in two years.

McCarthy wouldn’t solve New York’s need for long-term rotation help, but he would give the team some depth behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda. They wouldn’t have to reply on youngsters like Luis Cessa and Luis Severino quite as much right out of the gate next year. Taking pressure off the kids would be pretty cool, I think. McCarthy’s contract is not a burden and it might not cost much to get him in a trade. If that’s the case, I think the Yankees should definitely be interested.

Scouting the Trade Market: Arizona Diamondbacks

Bradley. (Rich Gagnon/Getty)
Bradley. (Rich Gagnon/Getty)

After two pretty miserable years under Dave Stewart, the Diamondbacks cleaned out their front office at the end of the 2016 regular season and brought in longtime Red Sox executive Mike Hazen to run the show. Arizona went 69-93 this year, down from 79-83 in 2015 despite spending big to acquire Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller last offseason. Ouch.

The D-Backs are an interesting team because they do have some impressive talent. You can do a heck of a lot worse than building your lineup around Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, for example. The club also has some interesting young arms, and according to Ken Rosenthal, Hazen & Co. are expecting to field a lot of calls about those young pitchers this offseason.

The Yankees, like every other team, are perpetually in the market for rotation help. The younger the better. The three best starting pitchers in the organization at this very moment (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda) can all become free agents after 2017. That’s sorta scary. Do any of Arizona’s young arms make sense for the Yankees? Let’s dive in.

RHP Archie Bradley

Background: Bradley, 24, was the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, and prior to the 2014 season, Baseball America ranked him as the ninth best prospect in baseball. The right-hander has struggled in his fairly limited MLB time, pitching to a 5.18 ERA (4.27 FIP) with 20.8% strikeouts, 11.1% walks, 47.8% grounders, and 0.96 HR/9 in 177.1 total innings. That includes a 5.02 ERA (4.10 FIP) with similar peripherals in 141.2 innings in 2016.

Scouting Report (via Brooks Baseball): “His fourseam fastball has essentially average velo. His curve is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ curves, has a sharp downward bite, is slightly harder than usual and has primarily 12-6 movement. His change is slightly firmer than usual and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Bradley is a pure power pitcher — his four-seamer averaged 93.4 mph and topped out at 97.0 mph in 2017 — and the Yankees love power pitchers. He can miss bats and get grounders, which is a darn good recipe for long-term success. Bradley have five years of team control remaining, though depending on the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement, he could qualify as a Super Two if the cutoff drops a bit lower. Not a huge deal though.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? That 11.1% walk rate is no fluke. Bradley has a 12.3% walk rate in over 440 minor league innings, so throwing strikes is an issue. The kid averaged over 18 pitches per inning in 2016. That’s crazy high. Bradley’s changeup isn’t very effective either, which is why left-handed batters hit .315/.412/.523 (!) against him this year. Yikes. Also, he missed close to three months with shoulder tendinitis in 2015, but was fine in 2016. Strikeouts and grounders solve a lot of problems and Bradley can get them. The walks and inability to neutralize lefties are an ongoing concern though.

LHP Patrick Corbin

Background: The 27-year-old Corbin, a semi-local kid from up near Syracuse, was an All-Star with the D’Backs back in 2013 before blowing out his elbow in Spring Training 2014 and needing Tommy John surgery. His performance after returning last season was promising (3.60 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 85 innings), but the wheels came off this year, so much so that Arizona had to move him to the bullpen. Corbin had a 5.15 ERA (4.84 FIP) with 18.7% strikeouts, 9.4% walks, and 53.8% grounders in 155.2 innings covering 24 starts and 12 relief appearances in 2016.

Scouting Report (via Brooks): “His fourseam fastball generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, has some natural sinking action and has slightly above average velo. His slider generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ sliders, is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders and has some two-plane movement. His sinker generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sinkers and has slightly above average velo. His change is much firmer than usual.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? The Yankees love buy low opportunities and Corbin is exactly that. He was a deserving All-Star three years ago and it’s worth noting his stuff has bounced back well following surgery. Corbin’s velocity has held steady and he’s getting similar movement on his secondary pitches. A true four-pitch lefty with a history of missing bats and getting grounders is a mighty fine rotation piece. There’s a chance Corbin’s numbers will bounce back simply by getting away from Arizona’s league worst defense too.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? The Tommy John surgery is not nothing. Corbin had a major arm procedure two and a half years ago, and while he’s been healthy since, it is a red flag. Also, we can’t ignore the dreadful statistical performance too. The shoddy team defense didn’t cause his 1.39 HR/9 this year, for example. Corbin was an All-Star three years ago. Now he’s not close to that level. Is he fixable? Considering he’s only two years away from free agency, the Yankees might not have enough time to find out and reap the reward.

RHP Shelby Miller

Background: Gosh, Miller has been through an awful lot in his career so far. The 26-year-old was a top 2009 draft prospect who slipped to the 19th overall pick due to bonus demands, then went on to be ranked as a top 13 global prospect by Baseball America in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Miller’s rookie season in 2013 was good enough (3.06 ERA and 3.67 FIP) to earn a third place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. His sophomore season was bad enough (3.74 ERA and 4.54 FIP) that the Cardinals soured on him and traded him for one year of Jason Heyward.

Miller was an All-Star with the Braves in 2015 (3.02 ERA and 3.45 FIP) before being traded to the D’Backs in that insane deal last offseason. He had a 6.15 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 101 total innings this season. His strikeout (15.2%), walk (9.1%), grounder (41.9%), and homer (1.25 HR/9) rates were all … not good. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher this young and this talented going from All-Star one year to arguably the worst pitcher in baseball the next without a major arm injury, but Miller managed to pull it off.

Scouting Report (via Brooks): “His fourseam fastball has essentially average velo. His cutter results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ cutters and has some natural sink. His curve generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ curves. His change generates a very high amount of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups, generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ changeups and is much firmer than usual. His sinker results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sinkers and has slightly above average velo.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Is there a bigger buy low candidate in baseball right now? Unless he hid an injury all season, Miller’s issues were all mechanical in 2016. And probably mental too. It’s hard to think his confidence didn’t take a hit while getting blasted every fifth day. Miller got into this weird mechanical funk in which he dropped so low in his delivery he would hit his hand on the mound during his follow through …

Shelby Miller

… which briefly sent him to the disabled list with a sprained finger. Miller legitimately throws five pitches, and at his best, he’s a weak contact guy who gets a lot of soft ground balls and lazy pop-ups. Fix the mechanics and rebuild his confidence — not easy to do in the offense happy AL East and Yankee Stadium — and you could have yourself a pretty good pitcher. As an added bonus, the D’Backs sent Miller to the minors juuust long enough this season to delay his free agency, so he comes with three years of control.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? Obvious, right? Miller might not be fixable. His mechanics could be beyond repair and his confidence could be completely destroyed. I am no pitching coach, but what Shelby went through this season doesn’t strike me as a quick or easy fix. He’s a reclamation project now. No doubt about it. I’d dub this an “extremely high risk, kinda high reward” play.

LHP Robbie Ray

Background: Ray, 25, was a 12th round pick who developed into a solid pitching prospect. The Nationals traded him to the Tigers in the Doug Fister deal three years ago, then the Tigers traded him to Arizona as part of the three-team deal that brought Didi Gregorius to New York two years ago. In 2016, Ray had a 4.90 ERA (3.76 FIP) despite striking out 218 batters in 174.1 innings. His 28.1% strikeout rate is the 20th highest by a qualified left-handed starter in a single-season in MLB history. (Ten of the 19 ahead of him belong to Randy Johnson.) Sam Miller wrote about Ray’s statistically odd season (ton of strikeouts, ton of runs) not too long ago, and I recommend checking that out.

Scouting Report (via Brooks): “His fourseam fastball generates a high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, is blazing fast, results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, has slight armside run and has some added backspin. His sinker is blazing fast, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ sinkers, has little sinking action compared to a true sinker and has slight armside run. His slider has primarily 12-6 movement, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ sliders, is much harder than usual, has less than expected depth and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ sliders. His change is thrown extremely hard and is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ changeups.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? The appeal of an extremely hard-throwing lefty — Ray averaged 95.3 mph with his four-seamer and 94.5 mph with his sinker in 2016 — who can miss this many bats is pretty obvious, I’d say. Add in the fact he has quality secondary pitches in his slider and changeup and you’ve got a nice little rotation piece. Ray is four years away from free agency as well, so he’s a long-term buy. A southpaw who can miss bats is a welcome addition to a team that calls Yankee Stadium home.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? There is more to life than throwing hard and striking out batters, as several members of the Yankees’ pitching staff have taught us (coughMichaelPinedacough). Ray’s walk (9.2%), grounder (45.2%), and homer (1.24 HR/9) rates left something to be desired this year, plus righties hit him pretty hard (.269/.350/.447). Ray fits the mold of a “great stuff, dubious command” pitcher, and the Yankees haven’t had a whole lot of success helping those guys figure out the command part.

RHP Taijuan Walker

Background: Walker, 24, still has some prospect shine remaining after be named a top 20 global prospect by Baseball America in 2012, 2013, and 2014. His MLB performance to date has been just okay overall (4.18 ERA and 4.30 FIP), and this past season he had a 4.22 ERA (4.99 FIP) with 20.8% strikeouts, 6.5% walks, 44.1% grounders, and 1.81 HR/9 in 134.1 innings. It seems the Mariners got sick of waiting for Walker to take the next step, so they sent him to Arizona in the Jean Segura deal last week.

Scouting Report (via Brooks): “His fourseam fastball has slightly above average velo and has some added backspin. His splitter is thrown extremely hard, results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ splitters, has movement that suggests a lot of backspin and has slight armside fade. His curve generates fewer whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ curves, has a sharp downward bite and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ curves. His cutter results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers’ cutters.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Walker just turned 24 and it wasn’t that long ago that he was one of the top pitching prospects in the game, so there’s definitely still a chance things will click and he’ll reach his admittedly high ceiling. His value is down right now — example: he was just traded for Jean freaking Segura, who is only two years from free agency and has been terrible two of the last three years — so this is a chance to get a talented pitcher on the cheap. Walker misses bats and he uses three pitches regularly — the cutter is basically a show-me pitch — so the tools to remain in the rotation are there. He comes with four years of team control, all arbitration-eligible as a Super Two.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? Two or three years ago Walker made a mechanical change and he hasn’t been the same guy since. I don’t know if he did it on his own or if the Mariners talked him into it, but he shortened his stride and finishes more upright now, which has taken some of the bite off his curveball and hinders his command. Walker has had some on-and-off shoulder injuries since the mechanical change as well — he’s actually coming off foot surgery at the moment, though that’s an unrelated injury — so that’s no good. This stride shortening thing isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw — Aaron Sanchez had the same issue, for example, and he got back on track last year — but it is something that needs fixing. Right now, Walker is a different pitcher than the guy who was atop all those prospect lists back in the day.

* * *

I really have no idea what to think about these young D’Backs pitchers. They all have talent, that much is obvious, and all but Corbin come with at least three years of control. These are, in theory, exactly the type of pitchers the Yankees are looking to acquire. At the same time, every single one is coming off a below-average season, even Ray with all his strikeouts. They all need to be fixed or helped in some way. They’re projects.

As always, it’s going to come down to the price. There’s always a point where it makes sense to roll the dice on a young project pitcher. Hazen has been at the helm for only a few weeks now, so he has no real attachment to these guys. Well, except maybe Walker because he traded for him, but otherwise these are not kids he drafted and developed. That connection is not there and it could make him more willing to trade them. We see that sort of thing all the time when a new GM takes over.

This free agent pitching class is so incredibly crummy that competition on the trade market figures to be fierce, so much so that even “broken” pitchers like Corbin and Miller will generate a ton of attention. The Yankees have plenty of prospects to trade. Finding a match won’t be hard. The real question is how much are they willing to give up, and how confident are they in their ability to fix one of these guys?

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Carlos Beltran

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Last week the Yankees made their first major move of the offseason when they sent Brian McCann to the Astros for a pair of Single-A pitching prospects. The move cleared quite a bit of salary ($11.5M in both 2017 and 2018) and also freed up the DH position. That was McCann’s only real ticket to regular at-bats now that Gary Sanchez is entrenched behind the plate.

Even before the trade, the Yankees were connected to many of the top free agent sluggers available. I have no doubt some of that is the general “the Yankees are in on everyone” nonsense we hear every offseason. Chances are there is some legitimate interest too. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. The McCann trade created a need at DH and the team is exploring their options. It’s what they do.

One of those options is ex-Yankee Carlos Beltran, who was traded away as part of the youth movement a few months ago. The Yankees signed him during he 2013-14 offseason, and he spent the next two and a half years in New York before being traded to the Rangers for three prospects at the 2016 trade deadline. Beltran is a free agent now and the Yankees are said to have interest in a reunion. Does bringing him back make sense? Let’s dive in.

Offensive Performance

Because Beltran spent all that time with the Yankees, we’re familiar with his work at the plate. He hit .304/.344/.546 (135 wRC+) with 22 home runs in 99 games before the trade this year, which is right in line with the .295/.357/.505 (135 wRC+) batting line he put up after April last season. Remember how bad Beltran was last April? Woof. He followed that with over 800 plate appearances of 135 wRC+ baseball. Cool.

Beltran didn’t perform quite as well with the Rangers after the trade — he hit .280/.325/.451 (103 wRC+) with seven homers in 52 games with Texas — though I’m not too concerned about that. He was healthy and I’m sure there was something of an adjustment period after joining a new team in a new division in the middle of a postseason race. The end result was a .295/.337/.471 (119 wRC+) batting line with 29 homers in 593 plate appearances in 2016.

Of course, when you sign a free agent, you’re getting what he does in the future, not what he’s done in the past. That’s the tricky part. Beltran will turn 40 soon after Opening Day and it is very reasonable to wonder what he has to offer at that age. Batted ball data is a pretty big deal when it comes to players approach 40, so here is Beltran over the last three seasons:

carlos-beltran-batted-balls

An increase in ground balls is a classic “he’s losing bat speed” indicator, and while Beltran’s ground ball rate was higher in 2016 than it was in 2015, it wasn’t a huge increase. A 42.1% ground ball rate isn’t all concerning anyway. It starts to get scary when hitters, especially middle of the order power hitters like Beltran, start getting up closer to 50%. Carlos is not close to that yet.

As you can see in the graph, Beltran’s ground ball and soft contact rates did tick up late in the season, while he was with the Rangers. That helps explain why his numbers slipped after the trade. That could be nothing more than a small sample size blip though. Carlos could have been worn down after a long season, especially after playing a chunk of it in the Texas heat. Could be nothing, could be something. We can’t possibly know.

Point is, there are no major red flags in Beltran’s batted ball data over the last few years. He’s still elevating the ball and he’s still making hard contact overall. From both sides of the plate too. The sudden late season increase in ground ball and soft contact rates this past season is a little red flag. It’s something to consider. It’s not enough to avoid signing Beltran completely, I don’t think.

Defensive & Baserunning Value

This is easy: none. Less than none, really. Beltran is a negative in the field. He’ll cost you runs. Forget saving them. Once upon a time he was as good as any center fielder in the game. Now he’s a barely mobile right fielder who fits best at DH. Age and years of knee injuries will do that to a guy. With McCann gone, the Yankees are in position to play Beltran at DH exclusively in 2017, which is where he belongs.

As for the baserunning, it’s the same deal. Beltran’s doesn’t run well anymore. It’s not just the lack of stolen bases either — Beltran stole one base in 2016, none in 2015, three in 2014, and two in 2013 — it’s the other aspects of baserunning too. This past season Beltran took the extra base only 30% of the time. That’s going first-to-third on single, scoring from first on a double, things like that. The MLB is average was 40%. He was far below that.

According to the numbers at FanGraphs, Beltran cost his teams 4.2 runs on the bases and in the field in 2016. Baseball Prospectus says it was 5.0 runs. That doesn’t sound like much, but remember, he played only 69 games in the outfield compared to 73 at DH. The playing time split limited the defensive damage. Given his age, there’s no reason to think Beltran’s defense or baserunning will improve. He’s a bat-only player.

Injury History

For the first time since 2013, Beltran managed to avoid the disabled list this past season. He did miss time with knee, hamstring, and quad problems — Carlos had to have his knee drained in June — but they were all day-to-day injuries. Last season Beltran was sidelined with an oblique strain. The year before he had a bone spur in his elbow that required season-ending surgery.

Beltran’s knees are the biggest concern going forward. Guys pull obliques and hamstrings get tight. It happens. More and more with each passing year too. Beltran’s knees are pretty messed up though. The left, the one he had drained his year, has given him on and off problems over the years. The right knee required microfracture surgery back in 2010. The move to the full-time DH should help Beltran’s knees stay healthy. His medical history isn’t pretty though.

Contract Estimates

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

First things first: Beltran did not receive the qualifying offer this offseason. He was not eligible to receive it after being traded at midseason. I’m pretty sure there was better than a 50/50 chance Carlos would have taken the $17.2M qualifying offer, but who knows. Either way, he’s not attached to draft pick compensation. No worries there.

Unlike some other big name DH candidates, most notably Edwin Encarnacion, Beltran figures to come on a short-term contract given his age. No draft pick and a short-term deal for a guy who hit 29 homers with a 119 wRC+ in 2016? Pretty sweet. Here are some contract estimates:

I include Bowden in these things because his free agent contract predictions have been insanely accurate over the last few years. He might not get them right down to the last dollar, but he’s almost always in the ballpark. It’s kinda freaky, really, to be that close year after year after year.

MLBTR and the FanGraphs crowd project a one-year contract, which is what common sense tells you a soon-to-be 40-year-old free agent should receive, no matter how productive he was this past season. Common sense doesn’t always win out in free agency. With teams like the Red Sox and Blue Jays and Red Sox and Astros and Red Sox said to be in the mix, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Beltran gets two years. The team that offers the second year might be the one that gets him.

So What About The Yankees?

This is what I think: I think Beltran is Plan A for the Yankees at DH now that McCann is gone. He’s the guy they want. He won’t cost them a draft pick and he’ll come on a short-term deal, plus they know him. They know Beltran’s work habits and what he’s like in the clubhouse. Also, he adds lineup balance as a switch-hitter, and because he’s played in the Bronx the last few years, there should be no adjustment period. It’ll be like he never left.

I also think the Yankees are unwilling to go two years to get Beltran. Maybe one year with an option, but not two guaranteed years. Every indication they’ve given the last year or so points to getting under the luxury tax threshold — whatever that number winds up being — during the 2018 season, and two years for Beltran compromises that. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia will all be off the books after next season. That’s their best chance to get under the threshold.

Also, what about Beltran? What does he want? Chances are his top priority next season is being with a contender. He wants a World Series ring. The guy has banked over $200M in contracts in his career. Chasing after every last dollar doesn’t seem like a thing that will happen. Beltran figures to join a no-doubt contender. He’s not stupid. He knows the Yankees are a team in transition — heck he was traded for prospects as part of the transition — and that means there’s a pretty decent chance they won’t contend in 2017.

Bringing Beltran back for a year to serve as the DH and mentor the young kids seems like a great idea, and really, it is. The question is whether Beltran is on board with that plan. Another team could offer a better chance of contention and/or a guaranteed second year, which throws a wrench into things. I’m not going to lie, bringing Beltran back makes me nervous after watching A-Rod, Teixeira, and Alfonso Soriano fall apart in the blink of an eye. I’d be okay with a one-year deal, but I wouldn’t be too upset if he winds up elsewhere either.