Scouting the Trade Market: Pat Neshek

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

At the moment, the single biggest issue facing the 2017 Yankees is their bullpen, specifically the middle relief. Adam Warren is currently on the disabled list, and both Tyler Clippard and Jonathan Holder have been ineffective the last few weeks. Chad Green is the third option in the bullpen right now, and while I like Chad Green, the Yankees clearly need more help. The bullpen as is won’t cut it.

If the Yankees do decide to go outside the organization for bullpen help — they could also call up some of their starting pitching prospects and use them in relief — one veteran reliever who will undoubtedly be available at the trade deadline is Phillies setup man Pat Neshek. The Phillies are terrible and Neshek is an impending free agent. He’s getting traded at some point. No doubt about it. He’s not the sexiest name, no, but let’s see if he’s a fit for the Yankees.

Current Performance

Neshek is no spring chicken. He’ll be 37 in September and this is his 11th MLB season. He’s a known quantity. Here are his numbers the last three seasons.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2015 54.2 3.62 3.94 22.9% 5.4% 32.0% 1.32
2016 47 3.06 3.68 23.2% 6.0% 33.3% 1.15
2017 30.2 0.59 2.07 26.4% 3.6% 37.0% 0.29

Neshek was rock solid with the Astros from 2015-16, and he’s been out of this world with the Phillies this season. It’s pretty obvious what’s going on though, right? He’s stopped giving up home runs this season without getting significantly more ground balls. Hmm. Neshek went from 10.9% HR/FB rate from 2015-16 to a 3.0% HR/FB this year. HMMM.

This isn’t a new man. This is the same ol’ Pat Neshek who just so happens to be on a run of good fortune when it comes to keeping the ball in the park. There’s no reason to expect that to continue though. Not with the way balls are flying over the fence this season. The Phillies might want to consider trading him before the home run correction comes and sinks his trade value.

I think any team looking at Neshek as a trade target has to go into it expecting to get the 1.0+ HR/9 guy because that’s who he’s been his entire career. And if you get the 0.3 HR/9 and sub-1.00 ERA guy, great! Another Neshek issue is his platoon split. He’s got a funky low arm slot and lefties see the ball out of his hand rather well. Since the start of the 2015 season:

AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB .197/.235/.322 .237 24.2% 4.2% 36.1% 0.93
vs. LHB .230/.295/.443 .306 22.9% 6.9% 28.8% 1.19

Neshek isn’t awful against lefties, though he is clearly better against righties, which isn’t surprising considering his arm slot. That .213 ISO allowed to lefties is scary, especially since he would be moving into Yankee Stadium should the Yankees pick him up. The Yankees would almost have his treat him as a true right-on-right matchup guy, not a full one-inning reliever.

One thing that’s worth noting is Neshek’s usage restrictions. Apparently he only likes to work one inning at a time, and would prefer not to enter in the middle of an inning, then warm back up for a second inning. Both Neshek and Phillies manager Pete Mackanin downplayed those usage restrictions, but as Corey Seidman wrote, they’re starting to become a bit of a headache. Huh.

Current Stuff

From that low arm slot come two pitches:  a low-90s two-seam fastball and a low-80s slider. Neshek also has a soft, almost cartoonish upper-60s changeup, but he rarely throws it. Everything this year looks like it has the last few years. Velocity, movement, whiff and ground ball rates, the works. Neshek’s stuff is he same as it ever was. Here’s the best recent compilation video I could dig up:

That funky delivery combined with two good pitches makes Neshek effective. It’s easy to see why he’s been death on right-handed batters too. It can’t be fun seeing the ball come out of that arm slot.

Injury History

Neshek had Tommy John surgery way back in 2008, plus he had a finger issue in May 2010. Otherwise he’s been completely healthy in his career. Kinda amazing a dude at that age and with that delivery can pitch for so long without any serious arm problems since Tommy John surgery nearly a decade ago.

Contract Status

Three years ago the Astros signed Neshek to a two-year deal worth $12.5M. This is the club option year of that contract. He’ll earn $6.5M total this season before becoming a free agent this winter. Not that he would receive one anyway, but Neshek wouldn’t be eligible for the qualifying offer after the season. Only players who remain with their team all season can receive the qualifying offer. This section was unnecessarily long.

What Will It Take?

The Phillies did well to pick Neshek up in a salary dump trade over the winter. They’re now poised to flip him for a prospect(s) even though veteran non-elite relievers due to become free agents usually don’t fetch much in a trade. Three recent deals stand out as benchmarks for a potential Neshek trade:

  • Joe Smith: Traded for a fringe top 30 organizational prospect (Jesus Castillo).
  • Joakim Soria: Traded for a top 15 organizational prospect (JaCoby Jones).
  • Brad Ziegler: Traded for two fringe top 30 organizational prospects (Jose Almonte and Luis Alejandro Basabe).

The Ziegler trade seems most relevant to me, and not only because he and Neshek use funky arm slots. Both Smith and Soria had some nagging injury issues the year they were traded, plus there were signs of decline in their game. Ziegler had no such issues. He was perfectly healthy and pitching as well as ever. The same applies to Neshek now.

Even after graduating several players to the big leagues the last few weeks, the Yankees have a deep farm system, and trading two fringy top 30 prospects for an immediate bullpen upgrade seems like a no-brainer. An equivalent package to the Ziegler deal would be something like, say, Trey Amburgey and Stephen Tarpley, or Abi Avelino and Erik Swanson. The Yankees have a ton of those dudes to peddle.

Will the Phillies get a better offer? Ken Rosenthal recently reported the Nationals have interest in Neshek, and they’re a World Series contender with major bullpen problems. Their desperation could get them to up the ante. Jim Salisbury says the Phillies have a standing offer for Neshek from an unknown team. We don’t know what that offer is, but the fact the Phillies haven’t accepted it yet tells us they think they can do better.

In a vacuum, it seems the cost to acquire Neshek should be pretty low. In the real world, other teams will be competing for him, including several World Series hopefuls who figure to put their best foot forward. That doesn’t mean it’ll eventually take a top prospect to acquire Neshek (or maybe it does). It could mean getting him for two lower level lottery tickets is a pipe dream, however.

So Is He A Fit?

Yes, definitely. Even with the platoon concerns and his apparent disinterest in going multiple innings. The Yankees don’t need Neshek to be a late-inning guy or a high-leverage guy. They need him to be better than Holder and Clippard are right now, and based on his track record, Neshek can do that. I have no illusions of him maintaining his current performance all year. The 2016 version of Neshek would be an upgrade for the Yankees.

Because the Phillies are so bad, this seems like something that could get done soon. Make a good offer and Philadelphia will probably take it rather than wait a few weeks and hope Neshek somehow ups his value. They could try to start a bidding war, and they might succeed, but how much more would they realistically get anyway? Neshek is no savior. He’s an affordable and useful piece for the middle innings, and the Yankees need all the bullpen help they can get at the moment. That’s it.

Scouting the Trade Market: Gerrit Cole

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

One thing has become abundantly clear the last few weeks: the Yankees need pitching. All types. Starters, relievers, lefties, righties, the whole nine. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery look like long-term keepers, though the remainder of the rotation is up in the air. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents after the season, and who knows what’ll happen with Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out.

The Yankees have the flexibility to fill out their rotation in multiple ways. Enough money is coming off the books after this season that they could sign a free agent or two. They also have the prospects to promote from within and/or make a trade. Brian Cashman and his staff will explore every avenue. That’s what they do. If a high-end starter with long-term control becomes available, they’ll get involved. I’m sure of it.

One such starter who may be made available at the deadline — but not definitely — is Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole, who the Yankees drafted in the first round in 2008. Cole didn’t sign, went to UCLA for three years, then came out as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. You know the story. That won’t stop the Yankees from pursuing Cole in a trade. There’s not enough quality pitching out there to hold grudges. Let’s break down Cole as a trade target.

The Performance

Somehow this is already Cole’s fifth season in the big leagues. He made his MLB debut in June 2013 and he has been in Pittsburgh’s rotation ever since. Here are his numbers over the years, real quick:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 117.1 3.22 2.91 21.3% 6.0% 49.1% 0.54 .294 .275
2014 138 3.65 3.23 24.2% 7.0% 49.2% 0.72 .294 .326
2015 208 2.60 2.66 24.3% 5.3% 48.0% 0.48 .283 .266
2016 116 3.88 3.33 19.4% 7.1% 45.6% 0.54 .285 .371
2017 96.1 4.11 4.57 19.7% 6.0% 46.7% 1.59 .285 .367

Two things immediately stand out. Well, three things, really. One, Cole is in the middle of his worst big league season, both in terms of ERA and FIP. Two, he’s been very home run prone this year. I mean, every pitcher has been home run prone, but Cole especially so. He’s allowed one additional homer per nine innings pitched compared to the last few seasons.

And three, left-handed batters have really hit Cole hard since the start of 2016. He’s still the same ol’ Gerrit Cole against righties, but after performing very well against lefties from 2013-15, Cole hasn’t been able to keep them in check since the start of last season. I’m sure the home runs have something to do with that — again, everyone is giving up more homers these days — but it’s still a red flag. Here’s the batted ball data against lefties, via FanGraphs:

gerrit-cole-vs-lhb

So yeah, home runs have definitely been a problem. Nearly one-quarter of all fly balls Cole has given up to lefties have left the yard this season. That’s insane. Lefties aren’t getting the ball in the air that much more often against Cole, but they are pulling the ball and make hard contact more often. That makes sense. Most hitters have their most power when they pull the ball.

Cole has already allowed 12 home runs — 12! — to left-handed batters this season. He allowed 16 total from 2013-16. Hit Tracker data says only five of those 12 home runs were “Just Enoughs,” meaning the ball cleared the fence by fewer than ten vertical feet. Those barely got over the fence. The other seven qualifies as “No Doubt” and “Plenty,” meaning they were bombs. Not cheap home runs. Hmmm.

If you’re reading this, you know a right-handed pitcher who has trouble keeping left-handed batters in the park is bad news in Yankee Stadium. The short right field porch is only going to exacerbate that home run problem. Is this fixable? Or is this who Cole is now? That’s something the Yankees will have to consider before pursuing a trade.

The Stuff

Cole has five distinct pitches, but he is more of a four-and-a-half pitch pitcher than a true five-pitch pitcher. His curveball is basically a get-me-over pitch he’ll use to steal a strike now and then. It’s not a put-away pitch like his slider and changeup. And his fastball, for that matter. Here are the average velocities, via Brooks Baseball:

gerrit-cole-velocity

Yep. Cole throws hard. We knew that already. His four-seamer and sinker are both consistently over 95 mph — he’s topped out at 100.2 mph with the four-seamer and 99.7 mph with the sinker this season — while the slider and changeup are both a touch shy of 90 mph. Cole is Severino, basically. Everything he throws is hard. A power pitcher all the way.

Reading about pitches and seeing them in action are two very different things, so here’s some video:

Because of the issues with left-handed hitters the last two years, it’s worth digging a little deeper here. PitchFX and Trackman data shows Cole is throwing fewer four-seam fastballs to lefties this year and more of everything else. Cole may have changed his pitch selection a bit after last season, or this could be sample size noise. If he did change his pitch selection against lefties intentionally, it’s not really working. They’re taking him deep on the regular this year.

Here are the swing-and-miss rates by lefties against Cole’s various pitches, via Brooks Baseball:

gerrit-cole-whiff-vs-lhb

Just about everything is down from where it was from 2013-15, the years Cole more than held his own against lefties. The curveball is way down, though he has only thrown 91 curveballs to lefties this season. That’s not much. Then again, he threw 91 curves to lefties all of last season. He is throwing that pitch more often to batters on the other side of the plate and they are not swinging and missing much at all.

The changeup and slider are the important pitches here. Especially the changeup, though Cole will also back foot his slider to lefties. The slider is still getting plenty of empty swings relative to previous years. The changeup? Not so much. Only two of those 12 home runs by lefties have come against the changeup, but if the pitch is not on par with previous years, hitters don’t have to worry about it as much. It has an effect on Cole’s entire arsenal.

Something has gone awry here. Cole’s stuff is relatively unchanged, yet he’s been unable to keep left-handed batters in check since the start of last season. Just about all 12 of the home runs he’s allowed to lefties this year have come on pitches right out over the plate (via Baseball Savant) …

gerrit-cole-home-run-locations

… so obviously location is an issue. Tanaka has given up a ton of dingers this season. Why? Because he’s left too many pitches out over the plate. That’s the easy part. Why has he left more pitches out over the plate? In Tanaka’s case, we can see his slider and splitter haven’t been breaking as much as usual. I haven’t watch Cole as closely as I’ve watched Tanaka the last few seasons. I don’t know if he’s simply missing his spots, or if his pitches are backing up.

I suppose the important thing here is that Cole is still throwing hard and he’s still using his his four-and-a-half pitches. When the velocity starts to slip or a guy starts to stay away from one pitch entirely, it’s a big red flag. That hasn’t happened with Cole. His issues with left-handed hitters are very real, especially his home run problems. As long as Cole’s stuff is still there, there’s reason to hope those issues can be fixed.

Injury History

Cole, who will turn 27 in September, has been on the disabled list twice in his career, and both stints came last season. He missed a month with a biceps strain, then his season ended in late-August with elbow inflammation. The Pirates were out of the race and they decided to play it safe, and shut their ace down completely. Cole healed up over the winter and had a normal Spring Training, and his elbow has been fine since.

The fact Cole had two arm injuries as recently as last season is sorta scary, and that could also explain the issues with lefties last season. If his arm was aching, he might not have had the same finish on his pitches. That, of course, wouldn’t explain his problems with lefties this season, assuming his arm is not hurt now. Point is, Cole had been perfectly healthy up until last season, when his biceps and later his elbow started barking.

Contract Situation

This is Cole’s first season of arbitration eligibility. He will earn $3.75M this year and remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 and 2019, so he’s a two-and-a-half year pickup. Trade for Cole at this year’s trade deadline and you get him for three postseason runs and two full seasons. That’s not super long-term control, but he’s not a rental either.

It is worth noting Cole is a devoted Scott Boras client and union guy, which means he is expected to chase down every last dollar when free agency comes during the 2019-20 offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t re-sign with the Yankees (or whoever trades for him) when the time comes. It just means they shouldn’t expect a discount. They’ll have to outbid everyone else.

(Also, Cole has all three minor league options remaining, though that means nothing. You’re not trading for this guy with the idea of sending him to the minors at some point. The options are close to meaningless.)

What Will It Take?

(Joe Sargent/Getty)
(Joe Sargent/Getty)

Plenty of high-end starting pitchers have been traded over the years, though not many have been traded at the deadline, and with two-and-a-half years of team control remaining. Most trades involving big time pitchers take place in the offseason. That leaves us very short on trade benchmarks. Here are some pitchers who were recently traded with two or three years of team control remaining:

  • Chris Sale (three years of control): Traded for a top five global prospect (Yoan Moncada), a top 25 global prospect (Michael Kopech), a top ten organizational prospect (Luis Alexander Basabe), and a top 30 organizational prospect (Victor Diaz).
  • Wade Miley (three years of control): Traded for a preseason top 50-100 global prospect (Allen Webster), a reclamation project former top 100 prospect (Rubby De La Rosa), and a organizational non-top 30 prospect (Raymel Flores).
  • Wade Miley (two years of control): Traded with an organizational top 30 prospect (Jonathan Aro) for a high-leverage MLB reliever with five years of control (Carson Smith) and a depth arm (Roenis Elias).
  • Nathan Eovaldi (two years of control): Traded with an organizational top ten prospect (Domingo German) and an MLB bench player (Garrett Jones) for an everyday MLB player (Martin Prado) and an MLB swingman (David Phelps).
  • Drew Smyly (two years of control): Traded for an organizational top ten prospect (Mallex Smith), an organizational top 30 prospect (Ryan Yarborough), and an organizational non-top 30 prospect (Carlos Vargas).

Yeah. I don’t think any of those trades help us figure out what it’ll cost to get Cole. The Pirates will push for a Sale package, no doubt, but that’s not happening. Sale is much better than Cole, has no injury history, and he came with three full seasons of control, not two-and-a-half.

Both Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi recently reported the Pirates have no plans to tear things down and start a rebuild, making it unlikely they will trade Cole. They will, however, listen to offers. It never hurts to listen. Cole’s value is down at the moment — like I said, this is his worst MLB season — and while the idea of buying low sounds wonderful, I doubt the Pirates move him for pennies on the dollar.

This is what I think will happen: the Pirates will market Cole as an ace because he performed like one in the not-too-distant past, and they’ll seek multiple top prospects. Their ideal package probably includes two top prospects plus two nice secondary pieces. Can they get that? Hey, who knows. It only takes one team to say yes. Last year’s injury issues and this year’s homeritis will give teams pause. No doubt.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Pirates to ask for Gleyber Torres in a Cole trade, and of course the Yankees will say no, even after his Tommy John surgery. A case can be made the three best non-Torres prospects in the farm system are outfielders: Clint Frazier, Blake Rutherford, and Dustin Fowler. The Pirates don’t need outfielders. They have Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco signed long-term, and they’re trying to trade Andrew McCutchen to open a spot for their Austin Meadows, their own top outfield prospect.

That said, when you trade a guy like Cole, the focus should be on getting as much talent as possible, not filling specific needs. If an outfielder is the best prospect they’re offered, they should take him, and figure out the rest later. The Yankees might have to build a package around Frazier, a strong secondary piece like Fowler or Chance Adams, plus two other players. Maybe an organizational 10-20 prospect (Domingo German? Dillon Tate?) and a 20-30 prospect (Josh Rogers? Zack Littell?). I’m spitballin’ here.

Does He Make Sense?

It depends on two things. One, the cost. Of course. The Pirates may market Cole as an ace but he is not an ace right now. Not with the way he’s performing and not with the way he’s been unable to neutralize lefties and keep balls in the park. He can be ace. But he’s not right now. The supply and demand nature of the trade deadline — will another pitcher as talented as Cole be available? — could push the price up into ace territory.

And two, are the problems with home runs and lefties fixable? That’s a huge question. Sticking a pitcher who can’t limit home runs and can’t handle left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium — not mention in the DH league and in a division with three other hitter’s parks — is asking for trouble. Acquire this version of Cole and there are valid reasons to believe he’ll perform worse, not better. You have to be very confident in your ability to fix him.

The Yankees need rotation help beyond this season and the more high-upside starters they acquire, the better. Cole absolutely has the ability to be a top ten-ish pitcher in the big leagues. Every team would love to get their hands on this guy. There are enough red flags (injuries, homers, lefties) to make me skeptical, however. The Yankees drafted Cole, so they like him, though I wonder if they still like him enough to part with some of their best prospects.

Scouting the Trade Market: Brad Hand

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One thing has become clear in recent weeks: the Yankees need bullpen help. Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances are arguably the best closer/setup man tandem in baseball, though there are other innings that need to be pitched, and those other innings have cost the Yankees too many games of late. The middle relief is a major weakness.

The Yankees could try to address the middle relief from within, something I suspect they’ll try at some point, though going outside the organization for help is always an option too. Trading for bullpen help can be tricky though. Relievers inherently work in small samples and weird things can happen in small samples. Your process can be sound and your evaluations correct, but a few hangers can cost you games and bloat an ERA.

One reliever who we absolutely know will be available this summer is Padres left-hander Brad Hand, a workhorse strikeout artist (30.6%) with a 2.72 ERA (3.17 FIP) in 39.2 innings this year. Since joining San Diego and moving into a short relief role last year, Hand has a 2.89 ERA (3.12 FIP) with 30.6% strikeouts, 9.2% walks, and 47.5% grounders. The Padres are terrible and in a deep rebuild, so Hand is available. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be. Does he makes sense for the Yankees? Let’s look.

What’s changed with his stuff?

Before joining the Padres last spring — as a waiver claim, I might add — Hand was a swingman with the Marlins. He came up from the minors as a starter and threw 288.2 innings with a 4.71 ERA (4.54 FIP) in 43 starts and 47 relief appearances with Miami from 2011-15. Now he’s dominating. Look:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 WAR
with Marlins 288.2 4.71 4.54 15.2% 9.6% 44.0% 1.00 +0.4
with Padres 127.2 2.89 3.12 30.6% 9.2% 47.5% 0.85 +2.7

Mediocre starter/swingman becomes dominant reliever. We’ve seen this movie before. More times than I care to count. Why is Hand dominant now? What changed? His role, yes, but that alone doesn’t explain it. Usually the first time that comes to mind is velocity. The move into short relief allows the pitcher to air it out, he adds some oomph to his fastball, and it makes a big difference. That’s usually how this works. That isn’t the case with Hand, however. From Brooks Baseball:

brad-hand-velocity

Same average velocity! Weird. Same max velocity too. It’s not like Hand suddenly has 98-99 in his back pocket. He doesn’t. I guess this means he’s one of those rare pitchers whose stuff doesn’t tick up in the bullpen. Weird.

What has changed is Hand’s pitch selection. He’s shortened his repertoire as a one-inning reliever. As a starter and swingman, he threw everything. Fastball, slider, curveball, changeup, the works. Now he’s primarily fastball-slider with a few show-me curveballs. The changeup is gone. Here are Hand’s pitch selection rates, via Brooks Baseball:

brad-hand-pitch-selection

Hand is throwing a lot of sliders now. A lot. Almost exactly half the time this season (49.2%). It almost makes you wonder whether Hand is throwing the slider too much. Yeah, it’s working, but how long can this last before his elbow says “okay, stop you jerk”? Heavy doses of breaking balls and healthy elbows usually don’t mix. Then again, maybe Hand is the left-handed Luke Gregerson, throwing slider after slider and staying healthy.

The change in pitch selection and heavy emphasis on sliders explains Hand’s success with the Padres, even without a velocity spike. Hand has a great slider. Check it out:

Throw that slider as much as Hand and you’re going to get a lot of outs. Strikeouts and weak contact. It helps the fastball play up too because the hitter has that slider in the back of his mind at all times. No more crummy changeups, fewer mediocre curveballs, and many more sliders. Lots and lots of sliders. It’s not an Andrew Miller slider, but it is pretty damn good.

Thanks to that quality slider, Hand has basically no platoon split. He’s held left-handed hitters to a .145/.249/.255 (.228 wOBA) batting line with 31.8% strikeouts, 11.1% walks, and 40.0% grounders since the start of last season. Righties, meanwhile, have hit .226/.299/.355 (.284 wOBA) with 29.9% strikeouts, 8.2% walks, and 51.5% grounders. Okay, so Hand does have a platoon split. But he’s quite good against righties!

Point is, Hand can get out batters on both sides of the plate. He annihilates lefties and more than holds his own against righties. He’s someone his manager can use for a full inning. Limit him to left-on-left matchup work and you’re doing it wrong. Hand is a capable late-inning reliever who happens to be left-handed. His stuff has not necessarily changed with the move into short relief. He’s just throwing his best pitch much more often.

Injury history

Hand has been on the disabled list once in his career, for an ankle sprain in 2014. He missed a month. It was a phantom DL stint though. As Clark Spencer explains, the Marlins put Hand on the DL because he’s out of minor league options and they didn’t want to expose him on waivers in order to send him to the minors. The fake injury bought the team some time to get their roster figured out.

Aside from that, Hand has never been on the DL or injured. Not even in the minors. Completely healthy throughout his career. He’s a big dude (listed 6-foot-3 and 228 lbs.) with a strong frame that allowed him to make 82 appearances and throw 89.1 innings last season, most among all full-time relievers. Hand has thrown 39.2 innings so far this season, which has him in the top ten among all relievers. He’s healthy and he throws a ton of innings.

Contract situation

Over the winter Hand went through the arbitration process for the first time. He’ll make $1.375M this year and remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in both 2018 and 2019 as well. And because he’s a non-closer, Hand’s arbitration salaries won’t be too big. He’s looking at $3M or so next year and $5M or so the year after, even at this level of performance. Hand is out of minor league options, however. He can’t go to the minors without being placed on waivers, and that ain’t happening. Then again, if you trade for Hand and have to think about sending him to the minors at some point, something has gone wrong.

What’s it going to cost?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

You know, with Zach Britton on the disabled list, you could argue Hand is the second best left-handed reliever in baseball behind Miller. Well, Chapman is back, so third best. It’s either Hand or Felipe Rivero. Maybe Jake McGee. Hand is in the conversation though. I’m sure the Padres would love to get a Miller package for Hand, but that’s not happening. Miller was better and had thrived in a big market.

Ken Rosenthal recently reported the Padres want a “Will Smith-type return” for Hand, which is certainly more reasonable than an “Andrew Miller-type return.” At the time of the trade, Smith had a 2.95 ERA (2.94 FIP) in 85.1 innings from 2015-16. On par with Hand, though in way fewer innings. Also, Smith came with three-and-a-half seasons of control. Hand comes with two-and-a-half. That extra year is big. Here’s what the Giants sent to the Brewers in the Smith trade at last year’s deadline:

  • RHP Phil Bickford: Baseball America ranked Bickford, San Francisco’s first round pick in 2015, as the 50th best prospect in baseball in their midseason top 100 prospects list a few weeks before the trade. He had a 2.71 ERA (2.95 FIP) in 17 starts and 93 innings before the trade, all in Single-A.
  • C Andrew Susac: Post-hype prospect who snuck onto a few top 100 lists in 2015. Susac hit .240/.309/.407 (104 wRC+) in 243 big league plate appearances and .282/.355/.469 (119 wRC+) in 299 Triple-A plate appearances from 2015-16 before the trade. He was blocked by Buster Posey.

Sad trade is sad. Smith allowed six runs in 18.1 innings for the Giants last year before blowing out his elbow this spring and needing Tommy John surgery. Bickford has not pitched this season because he’s serving a suspension for a second positive test for a drug of abuse. Susac is hitting .146/.196/.292 (18 wRC+) in Triple-A. That trade has no winners.

Anyway, if that’s what the Padres want for Hand, I suppose the Yankees equivalent would be something like Justus Sheffield (mid-top 100 guy like Bickford) and maybe Tyler Austin (former fringe top 100 guy with no MLB spot)? The Yankees don’t really have a Susac. A spare quality young player at a hard-to-fill position. Give me Susac last year over Austin this year eight days a week and twice on Sunday.

The general theme here is the Padres want two players for Hand: one top 100 prospect and an MLB ready young player. If they’re using the Smith trade as a benchmark, that’s the package. That’s a lot! But gosh, Hand is really good, and adding another great reliever to the bullpen sure would be a big help. And he’s not a rental either.

Does he make sense for the Yankees?

In terms of adding Hand to the bullpen, yes, clearly. He’d improve literally every bullpen in baseball. At that cost though? Eh, that’s up for debate. I do worry about Hand’s limited track record — again, this guy was on waivers last spring — and how well he’ll hold up while throwing so many sliders. Relievers are really risky. Even the good ones. And the more you give up to get them, the more risk you assume.

Although Hand would improve the bullpen, my guess is the Yankees do not want to trade top prospects for a reliever, even a great one. They were reportedly hesitant to trade their best youngsters for a starting pitcher in the offseason, remember. Now they’re going to turn around and deal young players for a reliever? Eh. Can’t see. I mean, they could always have a change of heart, but yeah. I don’t see this happening.

The last few times the Yankees traded for a reliever, it was either a buy low trade (Chapman, Tyler Clippard) or a perfect “my strength matches your weakness” trade (Justin Wilson). The Yankees are more likely to look for the next Brad Hand, that interesting swingman who could thrive in short relief, than trade prospects for the actual Brad Hand. The Padres will have no shortage of suitors for Hand and I don’t see the Yankees getting involved in a bidding war.

Scouting the Trade Market: Yonder Alonso

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Remember the offseason, when Greg Bird and various supporting cast members couldn’t possibly provide less production at first base than Mark Teixeira last year? Good times. We were so naive. So far this season Yankees first basemen are hitting .192/.291/.355 (54 OPS+) overall, easily the worst production in the league. This is the position with the highest offensive bar. It has been capital-B Bad.

Bird has been on the disabled list since early May with an ankle issue, and last week he suffered a setback that will sideline him for an unknown length of time. He saw a specialist yesterday and we’ve yet to get an update. Given the setback and Chris Carter‘s inability to find sustained success, it’s time for the Yankees to begin looking outside the organization for first base help. Carter isn’t cutting it and the Yankees have to give Bird all the time he needs to get healthy.

One first baseman who is very likely to be available at the trade deadline is Athletics masher Yonder Alonso, an impending free agent having a career year offensively. The 30-year-old is hitting .299/.392/.619 (168 wRC+) with a career high 17 home runs already. His previous career high was nine homers back in 2012. The Athletics have the worst record in the American League and it stands to reason they’ll, at the very least, listen to offers for Alonso.

Does Alonso make sense for the Yankees? Well, yes. That’s easy. A left-handed hitter with those numbers and solid defense is pretty much exactly what the Yankees need. That’s what they hoped to get from Bird! There are two questions here. One, why should we expect Alonso to keep up this level of production? He’s never done it before. And two, what’s it going to cost? Let’s try to answer those.

The Fly Ball Revolution

Thanks largely to Statcast, there’s a lot of talk these days about launch angle and a renewed emphasis on getting the ball airborne. I refuse to believe Major Leaguers are just now figuring out that hitting home runs and getting the ball in the air are good things, though now we can better quantify that, and perhaps that helps in some way. I’m certain teams use this data to educate their players and make mechanical tweaks.

Alonso, maybe moreso than any player in the league, has not only bought into the fly ball revolution, he’s also excelled at putting it into practice. It’s one thing to say or know you need to do something. It’s another to actually do it. Baseball is hard! Becoming an extreme fly ball hitter is not like flipping a light switch. Here are Alonso’s batted ball rates over the years:

yonder-alonso-batted-balls

Yup. Before this season, Alonso’s career low ground ball rate was 41.8% in 2011. His career high fly ball rate was 38.5% in 2014. So far this season he’s at 28.1% ground balls and 50.7% fly balls. Statcast data goes back to 2015, so here are Alonso’s 2015-16 launch angles and his 2017 launch angles:

yonder-alonso-launch-angles1

The ideal launch angle is 10-30 degrees. Below that and you hit a grounder. Above that and you hit a pop-up. Anything from 10-25 degrees is likely a line drive (depending on how hard the ball is struck, i.e. exit velocity). Most home runs fall in the 25-30 degree range. From 2015-16, Alonso’s average launch angle was 9.1 degrees. 9.1! This year it’s 21.8 degrees.

It’s also worth noting Alonso’s hard contact rate (36.3%) and strikeout rate (22.5%) are career highs for a full season as well, which perhaps indicate he’s selling out for power a bit. (Like Matt Holliday?) In an effort to get the ball in the air, he’s swinging harder than ever, which inevitably leads to more whiffs.

Here’s a look at 2016 Alonso vs. 2017 Alonso. If a guy is hitting way more fly balls and way fewer ground balls, in addition to more hard contact and strikeouts, surely his swing is going to look a little different, right? I’d assume so. 2016 Alonso is on the left. 2017 Alonso is on the right.

2016-17-yonder-alonso-swing1

Looks … pretty much exactly the same? Dammit. I hate when that happens. Yonder has always had a pretty swing. That’s one of the main reasons he was the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft. He just never developed the power many expected. At least not until this season. Before this year, he was basically James Loney 2.0.

Anyway, as for the GIFs, Alonso still uses both one-handed and two-handed follow-throughs regularly, so that’s not it. The GIFs are synced up at the moment his front foot touches down, and it does seem his leg lift is a little shorter this year. His leg hangs in the air a little longer in the GIF on the left, from 2016. Also, Alonso’s head is much more still in the 2017 GIF. Last year there was some herky-jerkiness in there. Keeping your head still is kinda important.

Ken Rosenthal recently profiled Alonso, who did some soul-searching this past offseason and was not happy with the way his career was playing out. From Rosenthal:

“It’s pretty simple,” Alonso says. “I was heading in a direction where I saw my career on the downfall. I think in August and September of last year I realized that if I don’t make some adjustments, I will be heading into a backup role, not get the at-bats that I want.

“I’m 30 years old. I’m in my prime. I pretty much was very truthful honest with myself. I realized that if you’re going to play first base, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing everything to make yourself valuable. I needed to work on my hitting.”

Alonso told Rosenthal he consulted with many former teammates and players around the league in the offseason. Everyone from Joey Votto to Rougned Odor to Danny Valencia to Carlos Beltran. Rosenthal and Susan Slusser say Alonso even sent video of his at-bats to Votto and Beltran for advice. This is a player who was not happy with his career, sought help, made changes, and is now reaping the rewards. Hooray hard work!

The Yonder Alonso we’re seeing this year is not the same Yonder Alonso as the past five years. He has made a drastic change to his batted ball profile and is now hitting the ball harder and in the air far more often than ever before. The difference is enormous. The power spike is not necessarily a fluke. It would be if Alonso were the same hitter with the same batted ball profile as in the past. That’s not the case though. He’s a different hitter. Because of that, there is reason to believe this version of Alonso is here to stay.

What’s it going to cost?

Alonso is a rental, not a long-term buy, which takes a bite out of his trade value. The A’s can still market him as an impact hitter, however. Here’s a list of rental bats traded at the deadline the last two years:

  • Jay Bruce: Traded for an up-and-down depth infielder (Dilson Herrera) and one organizational top 20 prospect (Max Wotell). (Bruce’s contract did in include a club option for another year.)
  • Carlos Beltran: Traded for a preseason top 50-75 global prospect (Dillon Tate) and two non-top 30 organizational prospects (Erik Swanson, Nick Green).
  • Yoenis Cespedes: Traded for a preseason top 50-75 global prospect (Michael Fulmer) and a top 20 organizational prospect (Luis Cessa).
  • Gerardo Parra: Traded for an organizational top ten prospect (Zach Davies).
  • Ben Zobrist: Traded for a preseason top 50-75 global prospect (Sean Manaea) and an up-and-down depth arm (Aaron Brooks).

Decent sample! The best comparable to Alonso is probably Parra, right? Beltran, Cespedes, and Zobrist were all high-end producers with long track records at the time of the trade. Bruce had some pretty great years earlier in career before slipping a bit, partly due to injuries.

Parra, meanwhile, was a solid player from 2009-14 who was an average-ish hitter and an above-average defender. He then had a huge first half with the Brewers in 2015, hitting .328/.369/.517 (137 wRC+) in 100 games, which is when they flipped him to the Orioles. Parra then hit .237/.268/.357 (66 wRC+) with the O’s. Heh.

There was no real reason to believe Parra was a changed hitter, however. That 2015 first half was a .372 BABIP fueled hot streak. Baltimore then dealt with the correction. With Alonso, there are tangible reasons to believe he is a different hitter now, specifically the sudden surge in fly balls. Parra had a hot streak. Alonso is a new player.

Davies actually represented the Orioles in the 2015 Futures Game, though he was by no means a top prospect. He was a good prospect in a bad farm system. Davies was a top ten prospect in that system. Bring a top ten prospect in the Yankees’ system means being in the conversation for top 100 lists. Davies is not comparable to, say, Chance Adams. Not close.

The current Yankees equivalent of Davies is probably Domingo German, though they are very different pitchers. (Davies is finesse, German is power.) German for Alonso? I’d do it, which probably means the A’s would not. Then again, the Athletics have made some terrible trades of late, so who knows. Maybe they’d go nuts for Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder. They seem like “random players the A’s build a trade around” players, no?

Keep in mind Matt Adams, a pretty similar player to Alonso, was traded straight up for a non-top 30 lower level prospect a few weeks ago (Juan Yepez). How many of these first base masher types were unsigned in February? The market for them is not robust. Alonso is better than Adams — he’s performing better at the time of the trade, plus he can play defense — but not so much better that it’ll take a top prospect to get him.

There aren’t many teams in need of first base or DH help at the moment. That could always change with an injury, but looking around the league, the only contenders with a need at either position right now are … the Yankees? That’s about it. Maybe the Cardinals if they’re willing to put Matt Carpenter at third and Jedd Gyorko at second. I suppose the Mariners could be in the mix too. That’s pretty much it.

So, given the overall lack of suitors and the fact Alonso’s track record is not long at all, it should not take a top prospect to get him. It might take two okay prospects, but not a great prospect. Not a top seven or eight prospect in the system. The Yankees have a ton of minor league depth and using some of it to improve the big league team through trades only makes sense.

Okay, so does Alonso still make sense?

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

I’m a big believer in not paying for outlier performance at the trade deadline. Example: Parra! Also: Xavier Nady. He had a huge first half with the Pirates in 2008, then went back to being regular ol’ Xavier Nady after getting traded to the Yankees. You remember that, don’t you?

Look at his career numbers, and this season is a clear outlier for Alonso. He’s never come close to doing anything like this in the past. Unlike Parra and Nady, however, there are some indicators Alonso has changed his hitting approach in a way that allows him to hit for more power. There are reasons to believe this is all very real.

If you buy into the new Alonso — I do, the Yankees may not — then yeah, he’d be a wonderful fit for the 2017 Yankees, especially since it probably won’t cost an arm and a leg to acquire him. Carter has been mostly terrible and who knows when Bird will be healthy. Given everything Bird has been through the last 18 months or so, it would behoove the team to be cautious and patient with him.

One thing I should note is that Alonso wants to remain with the Athletics long-term, so much so that he is open to foregoing free agency to sign an extension midseason. “I think that there is a great chance that I stay here. I really do mean that,” he said to Rosenthal. That gives the A’s some leverage in trade talks. They don’t have to trade him. They could keep him and try to re-sign now, before he hits free agency.

That all said, given their shoestring budget and the fact they have other first base options in house (Ryon Healy, Matt Olson), it would make sense for the A’s to at least listen to offers for Alonso. Billy Beane has a history of making trades early in the season too. This one might not have to wait until the July 31st deadline. The Yankees or any other team could probably get Alonso before the end of the month and squeeze that many more at-bats out of him.

Trading for a rental like Yonder is a win now move, and it’ll be up to the Yankees to decide whether they want to do something like that. They may decide to stay the course and go with the kids, and hope Bird gets healthy soon. Or they could decide that yes, they’re in the race, and yes, they have some excess prospects to trade. If they decide to make the win now move, Alonso would be pretty much the ideal first base target in my idiot blogger opinion.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Joe Blanton

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

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

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

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

Injury History

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

Recent Performance

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

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

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

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

Present Stuff

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

brooksbaseball-chart

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

brooksbaseball-chart-1

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

brooksbaseball-chart-2

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

Contract Estimate

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

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

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

Does He Fit The Yankees?

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

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

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

Scouting the Free Agent Market: C.J. Wilson

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

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

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

Injury History

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

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

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

Recent Performance

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

wilson-gb

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

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

Current Stuff

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

brooksbaseball-chart

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

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

Contract Estimate

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

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

Does He Fit The Yankees?

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

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

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

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luke Hochevar

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

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

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

Injury History

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

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

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

Recent Performance

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

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

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

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

Present Stuff

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

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

brooksbaseball-chart

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

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

Contract Estimate

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

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

Does He Fit The Yankees

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

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

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