Archive for Scouting The Market
On paper, the Yankees currently have four outfielders for three spots. In reality, they have two outfielders for three spots. Both Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells took advantage of the opportunity to show they are no longer everyday Major League players this past season and New York will spend a chunk of the winter looking for an upgrade, especially now that Curtis Granderson has declined the qualifying offer.
The Yankees have already been connected to Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, the offseason’s two best free agent outfielders, and they also have interest in the veteran Carlos Beltran. That interest in expected to be mutual, unsurprisingly. Beltran has shown an eagerness to play for Bombers in the past, most notably offering to sign with them at a discount prior to 2005. He also came to the team at the last minute and gave them an opportunity to match the deal he eventually took from the Cardinals prior to 2012. I thought Beltran was a perfect fit before 2005 but not so much before 2012. What about now? Let’s break his game down.
- Despite his age, Beltran remains an effective hitter from both sides of the plate. He hit .296/.339/.491 (132 wRC+) overall this past season, broken down into a 144 wRC+ against righties and a 102 wRC+ against lefties. Over the last three seasons, it’s .288/.356/.503 (137 wRC+) overall and a 140 wRC+ against righties compared to a 128 wRC+ against southpaws. His overall strikeout (16.6% since 2011) and walk (9.6%) rates are both better than average as well.
- Beltran has answered some serious questions about his durability in recent years, playing in 140+ games in each of the last three seasons and 438 of 486 games overall since 2011. That includes the last two in the DH-less NL. He’s recovered well after only playing 145 of 324 possible games from 2009-2010.
- As you surely know, Beltran is arguably the best postseason hitter of his generation. He’s a career .333/.445/.683 (196 wRC+) hitter with 16 homers in 219 plate appearances across 51 playoff games. In October, Beltran is basically Babe Ruth (career 197 wRC+). That’ll be helpful if New York gets back to the postseason.
- Beltran’s walk rate (6.3%) this year was his lowest since his rookie season by a decent margin. He swung at 31.0% of pitches out of the zone, a career-high since the data started being recorded in 2007. Beltran’s out-of-zone swing rate has actually increased every year since 2009. He’s trending the wrong way and, not coincidentally, is at an age when hitters start their swing earlier to compensate for lost bat speed.
- Once a historically great base-runner, Beltran is no longer a threat to steal bases and he’s only league average when it comes to taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.). Once upon a time he was a lock for 30+ steals a year, but that part of his game is long gone.
- Beltran’s defense has slipped as well. His reads off the bat are still good but his range and arm have really declined. His defensive numbers since moving to right field full-time in 2011 are pretty bad: -2 DRS, -20.1 UZR, -7.1 FRAA, and -22 Total Zone.
- He has stayed healthy these last three years, but Beltran had major knee right knee surgery in 2010 — he actually had an arthroscopic procedure instead of microfracture surgery against the Mets’ wishes — and still deals with regular soreness. Beltran has been on the DL once in the last three years but day-to-day ailments are fairly common.
- Beltran declined the qualifying offer prior to Monday’s deadline, so teams will have to forfeit a high draft pick to sign him. For the Yankees, that means surrendering the 18th overall selection.
According to Tim Brown, Beltran is seeking a three or four-year contract this winter and that’s just not happening. It shouldn’t, anyway, especially from the Yankees. He’ll turn 37 soon after Opening Day and he’s got a bad knee. It’s not a matter of if he’ll become a full-time DH, but when. It could easily be this season. I was thinking more along the lines of two years and $30M, a $2M per year raise over the contract he signed with the Cardinals to essentially account for market inflation. Teams have lots of money to spend and he has no reason to settle for one year.
The drop in walk rate — it’s worth noting Beltran’s strikeout rate did not increase at all this year — is a concern to me only because it might mean his bat speed is really starting to slip. The now poor defense and general age-related concerns are another red flag, plus giving up a high draft pick would stink. Beltran is, however, a big upgrade over the team’s current right field options and his switch-hitting power bat would fit perfectly into the middle of the Yankees lineup. The question is whether he wants to come to the Bronx at this point. I’m guessing one of Beltran’s top priorities this winter is joining a team that gives him a strong chance to win a World Series and he simply might not believe New York can give him that opportunity. He’d be a solid pickup on a two-year contract but Beltran’s demands might throw a wrench into things.
The Yankees have a bunch of needs to address this winter and the catcher position is one of the biggest. The law firm of Cervelli, Stewart & Romine was one of the worst catching crops in baseball in 2013 and in definite need of an upgrade. The free agent market offers several quality backstops like Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Carlos Ruiz, but New York might not be able to afford them. At least not until the ruling in Alex Rodriguez‘s appeal hearing is handed down.
Late last week, the Reds made the first notable free agent signing of the winter by bringing in switch-hitting backstop Brayan Pena. Young Devin Mesoraco is untouchable, which means the veteran Ryan Hanigan is a man without a roster spot. In fact, soon after the Pena signing, Ken Rosenthal reported Cincinnati is likely to move the 33-year-old this winter. Buster Olney noted the Yankees (and Rays) have liked Hanigan in the past and could turn to him as a more cost effective catching option. Let’s break down his game.
- Hanigan’s offensive game is built around controlling the strike zone and getting on base. His walk rate both this year (11.4%) and over the last three years (11.6%) is above-average and has allowed him to post a .346 OBP since 2011 (.359 since breaking into the league full-time).
- In addition to the walks, Hanigan rarely strikes out. He’s walked more than he’s struck out every year since 2008 and his strikeout rate was basically half the league average both this past year (10.4%) and over the last three years (10.3%). Only six players best his contact rate (91.4%) since 2011.
- Hanigan has consistently graded out as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 rankings) and he’s thrown out 40% of attempted base-stealers in his career (47.5% over the last two years). He also ranks as one of the game’s best pitch-framers and has spoken about that skill at length.
- Matt Swartz projects Hanigan to earn $2.3M next season, his final trip through arbitration. He is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time next winter.
- Hanigan did not hit a lick this past season, putting up a .198/.306/.261 (53 wRC+) batting line in 260 plate appearances. He has never hit for power (.063 ISO in 2013 and .081 career), so his offensive game depends entirely on those walks and putting the ball in play.
- That gaudy walk rate has been artificially inflated. Hanigan has been intentionally walked 25 times (!) over the last three years, so his unintentional walk rate is a still solid but not excellent 9.0%. Batting eighth in front of the pitcher has its benefits.
- As expected, he chips in nothing on the bases. Catchers usually don’t. Hanigan has attempted one (!) stolen base in parts seven big league seasons and he’s taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) a below-average 35% of the time in his career.
- Hanigan has had some injury problems over the years, including two DL trips in 2013. He missed three weeks with an oblique strain and a month with a wrist sprain. Obviously the wrist could have contributed to the poor batting line. Hanigan has also dealt with concussion (2009) and thumb (2010) problems.
Given his low salary and the general dearth of catching, the Reds shouldn’t have much trouble finding a trade partner for Hanigan. I would be surprised if they have to non-tender him at the deadline on December 2nd. Not too many catchers have been traded one year prior to free agency in recent years, especially none similar to Hanigan. A.J. Pierzynski (Twins to Giants) was dealt one year before hitting the open market but that doesn’t really fit — he was younger and better and that trade was a decade ago. I haven’t the slightest idea of what it would take to acquire Hanigan in a trade.
If the Yankees aren’t going to spend big for McCann or Saltalamacchia or Ruiz, Hanigan is pretty much the only catcher they could bring in who would be an upgrade over the in-house options while not taking a huge bite out of the payroll pie. He’s a better defensive catcher than Stewart (pitch framing!) and even though he has zero power, Hanigan will at least put together quality at-bats and get on-base regularly via walks. It’s worth noting he had a career-low .216 BABIP in 2013 (.283 career) despite no change in his batted ball profile. A little BABIP rebound would get him back into the .270/.360/.340 range he sat from 2011-2012. That isn’t anything special, but it’s better than what the Yankees have now and the (financial) cost is very reasonable.
Following a season in which their catchers ranked 26th in baseball with a 61 wRC+ and 23rd with 0.9 fWAR, help behind the plate figures to be on the Yankees’ agenda this winter. They have some strong backstop prospects in J.C. Murphy and Gary Sanchez, but prospects break hearts and if the team has a chance to land a quality catcher this offseason, they should consider it. Strongly consider it. Very strongly.
Long-time Braves catcher Brian McCann is a free agent and his camp has already had preliminary talks with New York according to Andy McCullough. That makes sense, especially since elite catchers very rarely hit the open market. In fact, since Ivan Rodriguez signed his four-year, $40M deal with the Tigers prior to the 2004 season, the largest contract given to a free agent catcher is the three-year, $18M pact the Marlins gave John Buck three years ago. Good catchers never ever ever become free agents. Teams lock them up because they know how rare and precious they are.
On the surface, McCann makes perfect since for the Yankees. If he’s not an elite catcher, he’s damn near elite. One of the five best in baseball. He’s also a left-handed power hitter who should benefit quite a bit from the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium. There is more to life than that though, especially when talking about a guy who had surgery to repair a tear in his labrum and general instability in his right shoulder last October. Let’s break down his game to see just how much of a fit he is for New York:
- McCann showed no ill effects from the surgery offensively by hitting .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) with 20 homers in 402 plate appearances this year. He struggled mightily while playing through the injury last summer (87 wRC+) but rebounded to his pre-surgery levels (121 wRC+ from 2009-2011). His strikeout rate (16.4% in both 2013 and 2009-2011) is lower than the league average as well.
- He fits the classic Yankees’ mold of power and patience. McCann drew a walk in 9.7% of his plate appearances this year (10.9% from 2009-2011) and managed a .205 ISO (.195 from 2009-2011) despite playing in pitcher-friendly Turner Field. As his spray charts show (2013, 2009-2011), he does most of his damage when he pulls the ball to right. That fit perfectly with Yankee Stadium.
- Aside from the shoulder problem last year, McCann has been very durable by catcher standards since breaking into the league 2005. The shoulder surgery is a huge red flag obviously, but it’s not like he has a tendency to visit the DL every year or anything.
- Outside of what appears to be an outlier in 2011, McCann has consistently rated as an above-average defensive catcher (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 rankings). He has also grades out as an excellent pitch-framer, both this past season and historically (subs. req’d).
- McCann has played in the postseason a bunch of times and has plenty of experience in pennant races and all that with the Braves. I don’t know how valuable that actually is, but it can’t hurt.
- McCann’s overall offensive performance was very good this year, but he really struggled against southpaws for the first time since breaking into the league: .231/.279/.337 (72 wRC+) against lefties but .266/.357/.512 (141 wRC+) against righties. From 2009-2011, it was .250/.323/.411 (100 wRC+) against lefties and .284/.374/.494 (131 wRC+) against righties.
- Despite the strong defensive scores, McCann has always been below-average at throwing out attempted base-stealers. He cut down just 15 of 62 (24.2%) runners this year and 89 of 353 (25.2%) from 2009-2011. Consistently five or so percentage points below the league average.
- McCann has no value on the bases whatsoever, which is par for the catcher course. He attempted one stolen base this year and only 21 over the last five years. He’s also well-below-average at taking the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.), succeeding only 17% of the time since 2009. The league average is close to 40%. He’s a base-clogger in the historical sense of the term.
- The Braves unsurprisingly made McCann a qualifying offer before Monday’s deadline, so the Yankees or any other club will have to forfeit a high draft pick to sign him. For New York, that means the 18th overall selection.
- McCann came off as kind of a dick late in the season during the homer incidents with Jose Fernandez (video) and Carlos Gomez (video). That is weak.
I think Yadier Molina’s five-year, $75M contract is the benchmark for McCann’s next deal. I think that’s the starting point, really. It’s been two seasons since Molina signed his contract and free agent prices have only gone up, plus McCann will be a true free agent and able to get several teams involved in a bidding war. Molina is clearly the superior player, but he signed an extension and could only negotiate with one team. I mentioned before how rare it is for a top catcher life McCann to hit the market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that lands him is the one willing to offer a sixth year.
McCann turns 30 in February and already has more than 8,800 career innings at catcher to his credit, so expecting him to remain behind the plate for the entirety of a five (or six) year contract seems unreasonable. I think the realistic case is getting two full years at catcher, one year split between catcher and first base, then two years split between first base and DH. That timetable lines up well with the expiration of Mark Teixeira‘s contract, so McCann could slide right over to first once he starts to turn into a pumpkin behind the dish. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get three full years at catcher during a five-year deal.
There is almost no chance the Yankees could fit McCann into their $189M or less payroll next season without Alex Rodriguez being suspended for all of 2014. That’s a problem because the ruling for A-Rod‘s appeal may not be handed down until mid-December, after the Winter Meetings when most top free agents pick a new team. Maybe McCann will be one of the exceptions who drag their decision into January, but the point remains: the Yankees can’t seriously pursue him until they know A-Rod’s salary is off the books for certain. That’s unfortunate, McCann is such a perfect fit.
Regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez‘s record 211-game suspension is upheld or overturned, the Yankees have a question mark at third base heading into next season. His continued injury problems can not be ignored. If A-Rod doesn’t miss a bunch of games due to suspension, he’ll miss them due to injury. That has been the case since 2008 and it would be foolish to think 2014 will be any different.
The free agent market for third baseman is okay at best, with either Juan Uribe or Jhonny Peralta headlining a crop that includes Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds, and Michael Young. Peralta is coming off his Biogenesis suspension and Uribe just had a career year at age 34, so everyone comes with questions. The trade market is another option, with Chase Headley being the big name. Others available via trade may include Will Middlebrooks, Trevor Plouffe, David Freese, and former World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval.
Over the weekend, Nick Cafardo reported the Giants will “probably listen to anyone who had interest” in the 27-year-old Sandoval, which I suppose is true of every player. There appears to be a little more something to this, however, considering the one they call Kung Fu Panda is falling/has fallen out of favor with San Francisco because of his weight issues. The team has tried pretty much everything. Add in speculation they may move Buster Posey out from the behind the plate to protect him from injury and wear-and-tear — third base is an oh so natural fit — and Sandoval could very well be on the block. Is he a fit for the Yankees? Let’s break it down.
- Sandoval is a true switch-hitter who is better against right-handed pitchers (122 wRC+ in 2013 and 136 since 2011) but still playable against lefties (98 wRC+ in 2013 and 100 since 2011). He’s also a remarkably consistent low strikeout hitter. Here, look at this graph. Couldn’t possibly be any more consistent.
- Despite his reputation as a free swinger, Sandoval actually draws a fair amount of walks. His 8.0% walk rate this year is almost exactly league average, and over the last three years it’s 7.8%. No one will mistake him for Nick Johnson, but he’s not exactly Adam Jones when it comes to walks either.
- Sandoval is a surprisingly solid defender at the hot corner. His three-year defensive stats at third (+5 DRS, +9.5 UZR, +0.8 FRAA, +6 Total Zone) range anywhere from average to above-average, plus he has experience at first base and came up through the minors as a catcher. That ship has sailed though, he’s an emergency third catcher at best.
- Thanks to San Francisco’s recent success, Sandoval has plenty of big game and postseason experience. He didn’t play all that much during their 2010 title run but he was a monster in 2012, hitting .364/.386/.712 with six homers in 16 playoff games. That includes three homers in Game One of the World Series (two off Justin Verlander), a performance that led to him being named MVP.
- Sandoval is under contract for an affordable $8.25M next season and will qualify for free agency next winter. He will not chew up a big chunk of payroll either next year or several years down the line.
- The elephant in the room is Sandoval’s ongoing weight and conditioning problems. He is listed at 5-foot-11 and 240 lbs. on the team’s official site but has shown up to camp closer to 280 lbs. a few times now. The Giants have tried everything to help him get his weight under control, including publicly threatening to send him to the minors if he didn’t get in shape this past summer. It’s worth noting Sandoval came to Spring Training noticeably slimmer in 2011 and went on to have the best season of his career (149 wRC+ and 5.5 fWAR).
- Sandoval is not the most durable player in the world, playing in only 366 of 486 possible games the last three years. He has had hamate surgery on both wrists (right in 2011, left in 2012) and has also been on the DL with a hamstring strain (2012) and a foot strain (2013). There was speculation the foot problem was due to his weight, which is completely plausible. Sandoval also missed time in Spring Training this year because of bone chips in his elbow.
- Even though he’s still an above-average hitter, Sandoval’s performance is trending downward. His average has gone from .315 to .283 to .278 these last three years, his ISO from .237 to .164 to .139, and his HR/FB% from 16.0% to 9.5% to 8.3%. Overall, he’s gone from a 149 wRC+ in 2011 to 117 in 2012 and 115 in 2013. Like I said, still above average, but trending in the wrong direction.
- You aren’t getting anything out of Sandoval on the bases. He is 11-for-23 (48%) in stolen base attempts in his career (3-for-8 since 2011) and over the last three years, he’s taken the extra-base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) just 29% of the time. The league average is around 40%.
I think the fit for the Yankees is pretty obvious. By acquiring Sandoval, they’d be getting a legitimate switch-hitter with power — he averages 20 homers per 162 games played, which is pretty impressive in massive AT&T Park — who can step in and bat in the middle of the order. They’d also get a solid defender at a hard-to-fill position and (gasp!) get younger. If they can’t get his weight under control and Sandoval stinks, they wouldn’t be stuck with him long-term. If he’s great, they could re-sign him or recoup a draft pick next winter.
Plenty of guys similar to Sandoval have been traded one year prior to free agency in recent years, giving us decent amount of comparables for a potential trade package. Among them are Kendrys Morales (one year of a starting pitcher), Shin-Soo Choo (a back of a top 100 list prospect and three years of an iffy outfielder), Carlos Quentin (two good prospects), and Josh Willingham (two good prospects). None are perfect matches but they get us in the ballpark, I think. Two quality pieces seem like the minimum, unless you’re giving up an established big leaguer.
Of course, the real question here is what do the Giants want? Even after re-signing Tim Lincecum, they still need to replace Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong. A starting left fielder or even a new third baseman could be on the docket. GM Brian Sabean isn’t one to make MLB player-for-prospect trades either. The Yankees shouldn’t give up Ivan Nova for one year of a player like Sandoval, but maybe the Giants particularly like David Phelps, Adam Warren, or Vidal Nuno. Building a package around one of those guys plus a second piece (Preston Claiborne? Zoilo Almonte? Eduardo Nunez!) would work for me. I doubt that would be enough though. Either way, if San Francisco makes Sandoval available, the Yankees should definitely inquire.
If there’s one thing we learned from Derek Jeter‘s injury this year, it’s that the Yankees have very little shortstop depth in the minor leagues. Especially at the upper levels. There’s nothing after the now-injured Eduardo Nunez, which is why guys like Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, and Alberto Gonzalez found their way onto the team at various points of the season. They didn’t bring those guys in out of boredom. They were necessary because the farm system had nothing to offer.
That lack of shortstop — and really middle infield all together — depth will carry over to next season. David Adams and even Corban Joseph could step in at second base on an emergency basis, but it’s tough to consider either guy an everyday option. Finding quality infield depth to either put on the bench or stash with Triple-A Scranton should be a priority this winter, and frankly they could use some help right now with Jayson Nix out for the season and Nunez heading for an MRI today.
Bill Ladson reported yesterday that the Nationals are trying to trade 26-year-old Danny Espinosa, their starting second baseman since Opening Day 2011. He wound up in Triple-A back in June because he was awful and Ladson says the team isn’t even committed to bringing him back up when rosters expand in September. They’ve very clearly soured on him. Does it make sense for the Yankees to pursue a trade, either before the August 31st deadline (so he can be eligible for the potential playoff roster) or over the winter? Let’s look.
- Espinosa broke into the show in September 2010 and hit .242/.319/.408 (99 wRC+) with 38 homers and a 7.9% walk rate during his two full seasons from 2011-2012. He’s a switch hitter who did his best work against lefties (124 wRC+) while being a non-embarrassment against righties (91 wRC+).
- The various defensive metrics have all rated Espinosa as above-average at second (+16 DRS, +14.5 UZR, +20 Total Zone) and no worse than average at short (+4, +5.0, +7) in parts of four big league seasons. His playing time at short is limited (335 innings) because of Ian Desmond, so sample size and all that.
- Espinosa is 38-for-52 (73%) in stolen base attempts as a big leaguer and 61-for-86 (71%) in his minor league career. He’s been almost exactly league average in terms of non-stolen base base-running, like going first-to-third on a single. That kinda stuff.
- Espinosa is right on the Super Two bubble. If he comes up in September, he’ll qualify. If he stays down, he won’t. Either way, he can’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season and has at least one and likely two minor league options remaining.
- Espinosa has been an absolute disaster at the plate this season. He hit .158/.193/.272 (23 wRC+) in 167 plate appearances before being sent to Triple-A Syracuse, where he’s hit .215/.2717/.289 (58 wRC+) in 297 plate appearances. Ghastly.
- Even when productive, Espinosa was always a high-strikeout player. He whiffed in 27.0% of his plate appearances from 2011-2012 and 27.1% of his big league plate appearances overall. In Triple-A this season, it’s a 33.0% strikeout rate. Contact from either side of the plate is not his strong suit.
- Espinosa’s recent injury history is grim and he makes matters worse by playing hurt all the time. He had a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder late last season and a fracture in his right wrist (caused by a hit-by-pitch) earlier this year. A thumb issue has been bothering him in the minors of late. Espinosa spent 16 days on the DL for the wrist immediately before being sent down and that’s it. Played through everything else.
Obviously the various injury problems could be the root cause of Espinosa’s terrible year at the plate. You almost hope they are because then at least you have an explanation. If he was perfectly healthy and performing like this, it would be much bigger red flag. I understand the whole tough guy/playing through pain thing, but Espinosa has done himself a disservice these last two seasons. We’re not talking about a sore finger or a banged up knee here. If he needs surgery for the shoulder or wrist or whatever, his team (Nationals or otherwise) should get it taken care of ASAP this offseason.
Anyway, Espinosa represents a buy low opportunity right now. His recent performance has been terrible and Washington doesn’t seem eager to keep him around, which is exactly when you want to pounce. Maybe they can get him for pennies on the dollar, a la Nick Swisher a few years ago. Swisher’s poor year and clashes with then-manager Ozzie Guillen all worked to the Yankees advantage. Espinosa is in a similar situation. Three years of Jed Lowrie, another true switch-hitting middle infielder with injury problems, cost a big league reliever in a trade when he went from the Red Sox to the Astros last year. That seems like a decent reference as far as trade talks for Espinosa, but it’s not a perfect match.
The Yankees need to prioritize middle infield depth this winter and Espinosa offers both roster flexibility and some upside. Upside in the sense that he could return to his 2011-2012 form and become an everyday player who provides average offense and above-average defense at a hard to fill position. If he’s just an up-and-down spare infielder going forward, that’s okay too. The Yankees need one of them. Espinosa is not a savior. In a perfect world he’s an eighth or ninth place hitter who hits the occasional homer, steals the occasional base, and makes all the plays in the field. It boils down to this: Espinosa is a 26-year-old middle infielder with another four years of team control who put together back-to-back 3+ WAR seasons before an injury filled 2013. That’s someone the Yankees should go after while his stock is down.
Following last night’s shutout loss to the Rangers, the Yankees have a team 85 wRC+ and average just 3.91 runs per game offensively. They’re a bottom five offense despite playing not just in a very good hitter’s park, but in a division full of hitter’s parks. That inability to generate offense is huge reason why they are just 22-28 in their last 50 games.
The Yankees are reportedly close to acquiring Alfonso Soriano from the Cubs for a mid-level prospect, a nice little pickup that will add some much needed right-handed pop to the lineup. Soriano is just one man though, he alone won’t save the offense. The Bombers still need more help, particularly in the power department. We’re talking about a team that hasn’t had an extra-base hit in their last 22 innings, remember.
Over the weekend, the Astros designated former Ray and former Yankees farmhand Carlos Pena for assignment as they continue their youth movement. Yankees fans have seen what the 35-year-old Pena brings to the table firsthand over the years — he’s a career .231/.353/.501 (109 OPS+) hitter with 26 homers in 113 games against New York — but is there enough left in the tank to help a club that desperately needs offense? Let’s look:
- Offensively, Pena’s calling card is his power. He’s hit at least 19 homers in each of the last six years and swatted eight in 325 plate appearances for Houston. As a dead pull left-handed hitter (2013 spray chart, 2011-12 spray chart), he should fit very well in Yankee Stadium.
- In addition to the power, Pena will also work the count and draw plenty of walks. He’s seen an average of 3.98 pitches per plate appearance this year (4.14 from 2011-12) with a 13.2% walk rate (15.6% from 2011-12). Both rates are well-above-average and damn near elite.
- Pena is pretty durably, having been on the DL just twice in the last five years. He missed a month with a broken finger when CC Sabathia hit him with a pitch in 2009, and he missed two weeks with a foot strain in 2010.
- Following all those years in Tampa, Pena is very familiar with the AL East and playing in tight second half races. He’s also widely considered a strong clubhouse presence. I don’t know how much that helps, but I can’t imagine it’s a bad thing.
- Pena is owed a touch more than $1M for the remainder of the season and will become a free agent this winter. If he goes unclaimed on waivers and is released (likely), any team can sign him for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum.
- Pena is not going to hit for average, like at all. He strikes out a ton (27.4 K% this year, 28.4 K% from 2011-12) and has not hit above .230 since 2008. Pena had a .209 AVG when Houston cut the cord and has actually hit below the Mendoza line in two of the last four years.
- The power is slipping. Pena put up a .141 ISO with the Astros, the second straight year his slugging ability has slipped. He’s gone from a .251 ISO from 2008-11 to a .151 ISO since the start of 2012.
- Despite his reverse split this year (77 wRC+ vs. RHP and 133 wRC+ vs. LHP), Pena is a platoon bat. He hit .223/.355/.434 (120 wRC+) against righties from 2010-12 but just .166/.295/.343 (81 wRC+) against southpaws. Lefties shut him right down.
- Pena was once a Gold Glove caliber first baseman, but now he’s just pretty good. He can’t play anywhere else, though. It’s first base, DH, or nothing. Not much flexibility.
The Yankees actually claimed Pena off trade waivers from the Cubs in August 2011, if you remember. The two sides obviously didn’t work a trade. Brian Cashman recently told George King he “wouldn’t be able to say” if the team has interest in the first baseman, which is GM speak. The team obviously saw something they like once upon a time, and in fact hitting coach Kevin Long knows Pena well from their time together with Triple-A Columbus in 2006. Pena credits Long with helping resurrect his career, so there’s a relationship already in place.
Although a right-handed power bat is the top priority (at least until the Soriano trade is finalized), the Yankees are desperate for any kind of power right now. Travis Hafner has been a drain on the offense, hitting just .161/.243/.273 over the last two months. Pena could replace him as the left-handed half of the DH platoon in addition to giving Lyle Overbay a proper backup, something the team lacks. He will also add some much needed patience to the lineup and be able to take aim at the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. That should boost his power production a bit. It wouldn’t take much for him to be an upgrade over Pronk at this point. Not at all.
Right now, the offense is so bad that the Yankees are in a position where they almost have nothing to lose. The bench is generally unusable and about five-ninths of the regular starting lineup is a non-factor. They can afford to give someone like Pena — a flawed but usable player — an opportunity to see if the short porch and a potential playoff race boosts his production. If he doesn’t hit, then they really wouldn’t be any worse off. They have both the flexibility and desperation to give someone like Pena a look now that he’s freely available.
Although the Yankees need a corner outfield bat more than anything right now, looking for an upgrade behind the plate shouldn’t be on the back burner. Chris Stewart (91 wRC+) has produced to the best-case scenario since being pressed into everyday duty, but Austin Romine (-14 wRC+) has been a disaster as the seldom used backup. Frankie Cervelli (140 wRC+) has yet to resume baseball activities and is still several weeks away from returning from his broken hand.
Quality catching help is hard to find any time of the year, but especially at the trade deadline. Part of the problem is that the second wildcard spot creates more contenders and fewer sellers. Another part of the problem is that there just aren’t many decent catchers out there to start with. Teams that have one tend to hold on for dear life. The best the Yankees can realistically hope for behind the plate is a warm body who unexpectedly puts up a few big weeks.
A warm catching body hit the waiver wire yesterday as the Padres designated the 32-year-old John Baker for assignment. Actually … he probably isn’t on waivers yet, but that could come in a few days. Does Baker make sense for New York? I don’t know, but like every other catcher these days, he has to be considered an option. Let’s break down his game.
- Baker, a rare left-handed hitter catcher, is a career .269/.349/.377 (95 wRC+) hitter against right-handers in 865 plate appearances. He doesn’t have much power obviously, but his walk rate (10.8%) is strong and his strikeout rate (19.0%) is manageable.
- The various catcher defense rankings have rated him as about average behind the plate in three of the last four years, including 2013. They said he was below-average last year, however (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013).
- Baker will earn $930k this season — owed roughly $555k from now through the end of the season — and remains under control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2015.
- He has an option remaining for this season, so any team who acquired him would be able to stash him in Triple-A as depth through the end of the year. Baker will be out of options next season.
- Baker can’t hit lefties, so much so that he almost never plays against them: .198/.301/.282 (63 wRC+) line against them in 155 big league plate appearances. The Triple-A numbers are actually worse.
- Despite the favorable-ish defense rankings, Baker has thrown out just 48 of 246 attempted base-stealers in his career (19.5%). He had Tommy John surgery in 2010, but his throw-out rate is the same before and after surgery.
- Baker is, obviously, unfamiliar with the pitching staff. That was a pretty big deal when Romine was originally called up and would presumably be a concern for any new catcher brought in.
The Yankees currently have an open 40-man roster spot, so that’s not an issue. Acquiring Baker would allow them to send Romine to Triple-A for regular at-bats first and foremost, but it might also give them a little extra production against right-handed pitchers. Joe Girardi loves Stewart and would presumably continue to catch him everyday, giving Baker some time to learn the staff during bullpen sessions and side work.
We’re talking about a backup catcher upgrade, not replacing Stewart as the starter. It’ll take a minor miracle for that to happen at this point. Romine has been completely overmatched though, and I think the Yankees should pounce on Baker if they get a chance to acquire him. If he makes it to them on waivers in a few days, great. I think they should look into swinging a minor trade — based on similar deals, it’ll take a player to be named later or cash, something like small that — before Baker is placed on waivers just to make sure they actually get him. The Yankees have already shown the willingness to make marginal upgrades (Reid Brignac over Chris Nelson, etc.), and although we’re only talking about the backup catcher here, going from Romine to Baker is a move worth making.
Pitchers and catchers are due to report one week from today, and for the most part the Yankees’ pitching staff is pretty much set. Ivan Nova and David Phelps will battle for the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training, with the loser presumably sliding into a swingman role. Injury is pretty much the only thing capable of changing the other four rotation spots or other six bullpen spots at this point.
No team ever makes it through a season using just five starters and just seven relievers, of course. At some point the loser of that Nova-Phelps battle will move into the rotation, just like guys who start the season in the minors will find themselves in the Bronx. It’s inevitable. Assuming Dellin Betances continues pitching in relief as he did during the Arizona Fall League, the Triple-A Scranton rotation will likely feature righties Adam Warren and Brett Marshall and lefties Shaeffer Hall and Vidal Nuno. That leaves one starting spot for a veteran, a low-risk minor league contract guy — like Ramon Ortiz last season — to serve as depth. A seventh/eighth starter type.
The free agent market is pretty desolate at this point of the winter, but here are four pitchers who could fit the bill.
LHP Dallas Braden
Braden, 29, has not thrown a pitch in either the Majors or minors since April 2011 due to a pair of major shoulder surgeries — torn capsule (May 2011) and torn rotator cuff (August 2012). He attended Texas Tech’s alumni game about two weeks ago but did not pitch, and that’s the closest thing I can find to a rehab update. In other words, there is no update.
Braden was very good for the Athletics from 2009-2010 before getting hurt (3.66 ERA and 3.77 FIP), though his strikeout (5.30 K/9 and 14.2 K%) and ground ball (39.0%) rates didn’t exactly stand out. He’s always been a soft-tossing — average fastball velocity from 2009-2010 was 87.6 mph — changeup specialist, so losing velocity due to the shoulder problems might not be the kiss if death. Given the typical rehab time associated with rotator cuff repairs and the unlikelihood that he can contribute at all in 2013, Braden is more of a candidate for a David Aardsma contract — one-year with a super-low base salary plus a club option — than someone a team could count on for depth this summer.
RHP Derek Lowe
Back in October we heard the 40-year-old Lowe would look for a job as a starter before deciding whether to return as a reliever, and apparently the offers to start have been scarce given his continued unemployment. I wrote a mailbag post about re-signing the sinker baller back in late-December, saying I liked the idea of bringing him back as a swingman candidate on a minor league contract. Anything more than that would be pushing it, and Lowe doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would bide his time and wait for an injury down in Triple-A. I think he would sooner retire.
RHP Dustin Moseley
Another former Yankee, the 31-year-old Moseley had surgery to repair his rotator cuff and labrum last April. Like Braden, I can’t find any updates on his rehab beyond the initial reports. Considering how long these things usually take, he’s probably not going to be ready to return to game action until midseason. That alone makes Moseley, who pitched to a 3.30 ERA (3.99 FIP) in 120 innings for the Padres in 2011, a less-than-ideal candidate for Triple-A depth. He would have been a great fit if healthy, but no dice.
LHP Jonathan Sanchez
Sanchez, 30, just finished a nightmare season that saw him pitch to a 8.07 ERA (6.60 FIP) in 64.2 innings for the Royals and Rockies. He walked (53) more batters than he struck out (45), and his fastball velocity continued its gradual decline.
That said, Sanchez is one year removed from a 4.26 ERA (4.30 FIP) with the Giants in 2011, when he posted his third consecutive season with more than a strikeout per inning (9.06 K/9 and 23.0 K%). The walks (career 5.00 BB/9 and 12.6 BB%) are a concern and after nearly 800 big league innings, it’s getting to be time to stop hoping for improvement. Sanchez has shown swing-and-miss stuff in the recent past, so as long as he isn’t hiding an injury, he’d be a pretty good reclamation project for the Triple-A rotation. The problem is that he’s reportedly close to a deal with the Pirates.
Early yesterday afternoon, we learned the Nationals agreed to re-sign Adam LaRoche to a new two-year contract. The move essentially pushed Mike Morse out of the team’s plans, as his primary positions — outfield (Denard Span, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth) and first base (LaRoche) — are now occupied by players who aren’t going anywhere. Shortly after the LaRoche news broke, Ken Rosenthal reported Washington was discussing Morse in trades with several teams. Shortly after that, we learned the Yankees have interest in acquiring him.
The fit is obvious. Morse, 30, is a right-handed hitter with power who is signed for just one more year at an affordable $6.75M. He’ll become a free agent next offseason. The Yankees need a bat and have been fixated on one-year contracts all winter, and Morse fits both bills. Given the Nationals’ reported asking price — a left-handed reliever and prospects/pitching depth — the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find a better trade fit. Before we move any further, let’s break down Morse’s game just so we all understand what he brings to the table and where his game is lacking.
- Morse offers big time power from the right side. He hit 18 homers in 102 games last season and 31 homers in 146 games a year ago. Nationals Park is perfectly neutral when it comes to right-handed homers according to the park factors at FanGraphs, so Morse’s power production was not inflated by his ballpark. Over the last three years, he owns a .220 ISO and a 21.3% (!) HR/FB rate.
- Late Update: I neglected to mention this, but Michael Eder at The Yankee Analysts bailed me out. Morse does a lot of damage to the opposite field, which fits very well for a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium.
- Morse does not have a platoon split at all. He’s hit .296/.344/.512 (133 wRC+) against righties and .294/.349/.517 (136 wRC+) against lefties over the last three years. He managed a 117 wRC+ against righties and a 102 wRC+ against lefties in 2012, but there are some sample size issues with the latter (barely 100 plate appearances).
- In nearly 1,700 career plate appearances, Morse owns a .344 BABIP (.339 since 2010). It’s not a fluke at this point. He’s a ground ball (48.4% last three years) and line drive (18.9%) hitter, which tends to result a lot of base hits. Unsurprisingly, Morse is a career .295 hitter in the show (.296 last three years).
- Morse does offer some positional flexibility. He came up as a shortstop with the Mariners (despite being 6-foot-5), but that didn’t last and he’s since settled in as a corner outfielder/first baseman. DH is also an option as well, obviously.
- As I said before, Morse is owed just $6.75M next year and will become a free agent after the season. By acquiring him this offseason, his new team would be able to make a qualifying offer next winter and receive draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere. A midseason trade doesn’t allow that.
- Morse’s plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired. He’s walked in just 5.7% of his plate appearances over the last three seasons, including 3.7% (!) in 2012. His strikeout (22.1%) and contact (75.5%) rates are both well-below-average during that time, ditto his miniscule 3.69 pitches per plate appearances average. Quick at-bats are not the Yankee Way™, but that’s what you’re getting here.
- He’s no stranger to the DL. Morse missed most of Spring Training and the first two months of last season with a right shoulder strain, and in 2010 he missed a month with a calf problem. Morse also missed the entire 2008 season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and two years before that he missed a few weeks with right knee surgery.
- The ground ball tendencies became quite extreme last season. Morse posted a 55.3% grounder rate in 2012 after sitting at 44.8% from 2010-2011. That explains the .190 ISO, which was his lowest full season mark since his rookie year in 2005. When a power hitter has a shoulder problem and suddenly has a tough time lifting the ball in the air, it’s a red flag.
- Morse offers zero speed or value on the bases. He’s 6-for-12 in career stolen base attempts and has taken the extra-base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) just 33% of the time through the years. The league average is in the 39-40% range.
- Morse is a bad defensive outfielder. The various metrics all agree he’s been a poor defender since finally breaking out as a full-time player three years ago: -24.5 UZR, -8 DRS, -2 Total Zone, and -3 FRAA. The first base metrics are a little better, but stats on first base defense aren’t as reliable as they are at the other positions.
The Yankees continue to seek a right-handed hitting outfielder to complement their all left-handed hitting outfield, but Morse is far too good for a platoon role. He’s not an Andruw Jones-esque bench player. Morse should be in the lineup against both righties and lefties on an everyday basis, preferably as the DH. If they have to stick him in right field twice a week to give some of the older guys time at DH, so be it. They lived with Raul Ibanez out there on an almost full-time basis last summer and he wasn’t nearly as good offensively (late-season super-clutch homers aside). Morse “strongly opposes” being a DH, but that’s not really his decision to make at this point of his career.
Like I said in the intro, the Nats are seeking a lefty reliever and prospects/pitching depth in return for Morse. That lines up with recent trades involving one year of similar hitters like Carlos Quentin (White Sox to Padres) and Josh Willingham (Nats to Athletics), so Washington isn’t being unreasonable. The Yankees have plenty of left-handed relievers to offer in a trade, that’s not an issue. Boone Logan‘s name jumps out because he’ll be a free agent next winter like Morse, but c’mon, a lefty reliever shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. If the Nats want Clay Rapada (who is more effective against lefty hitters than Logan) or Cesar Cabral or Francisco Rondon instead, fine.
The rest of the package is where the haggling figures to happen. New York has some minor league pitching depth to dangle in Adam Warren, Brett Marshall, and Nik Turley, though Washington figures to push for Ivan Nova or David Phelps. Those two shouldn’t be off the table, but I think the Yankees would have to get something else back in addition to Morse. Maybe they could really expand the deal to include one of Washington’s catchers — Wilson Ramos or Kurt Suzuki. That’s a whole other can of worms I don’t want to worry about right now. The Yankees have plenty of competition because reports indicate several teams have interest in Morse, but I feel they have the pieces to get a deal done. It’s just a question of whether they’re willing to pull the trigger to acquire a player who fits their needs very well.
The Yankees addressed their major pitching needs earlier this offseason by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera to one-year contracts. Their recent focus has been on the position player side, though the Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki signings plug two of their three biggest holes. A right-handed hitting outfielder and DH is still on the agenda for the rest of the winter.
Despite those position player needs, the Yankees also figure to be on the lookout for cheap, long-term help pretty much anywhere on the field given the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. Kuroda, Pettitte, and Phil Hughes are all scheduled to become free agents next winter at a time when young arms like Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos, and Dellin Betances have either regressed or gotten hurt. Ivan Nova‘s miserable 2012 effort is another pitching black mark as well. The rotation post-2012 is a concern and there won’t be much money available to improve it via free agency.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have tons of pitching. Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer are all signed or under team control for several years, plus they have Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly in reserve. Both pitchers are reportedly available in trades and drawing interest, and there’s a natural fit here because the Yankees could use some young arms. Porcello, a New Jersey native, is getting expensive through arbitration and has been generally underwhelming as a big leaguer (4.55 ERA and 4.26 FIP). He’s not a great fit for New York. Smyly, on the other hand, might be. Let’s break his game down.
- First things first: Smyly is left-handed and that’s always a plus in Yankee Stadium. Baseball America ranked him as Detroit’s third best prospect before the season, and they call him a future number three or four starter in their subscriber-only scouting report.
- “Smyly has an advanced understanding of how to attack hitters, which allows his average stuff to play up,” wrote Baseball America, who also praised his delivery and deception. “He throws his fastball at 87-92 mph with slight tailing life, commanding it down in the zone … He uses both a curveball and a slider, with scouts split on which is more effective. He also has a splitter-like changeup and a mid-80s cutter.”
- PitchFX data confirms the scouting report and says Smyly’s fastball lived at 92 in the show rather than topping out there. He pitched to a 3.99 ERA (3.83 FIP) with strong strikeout (8.52 K/9 and 22.6 K%) and walk (2.99 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%) rates in 99.1 big league innings this summer. His minor league numbers (9.7 K/9 and 26.5 K%, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.5 BB%) are just as impressive in 143.2 total innings. Yeah, the Tigers aren’t shy about rushing their pitchers up the ladder.
- Smyly did not pick up a full season’s worth of service time in 2012, so he remains under team control for six more years. He also has at least two and possibly all three minor league options remaining as well.
- Smyly had a stress fracture in his elbow as a college freshman at Arkansas and missed six weeks with a sore arm in 2011. He threw 121 total innings this year and his career-high is 126 a year ago. He’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-3, 190 lbs.), but he has yet to prove his durability. There’s no way to reasonably expect 30 starts and 200 innings from him in 2013.
- It’s only 243 total innings, but Smyly has been fly ball prone as a professional. His minor league ground ball rate (45.9%) is lower than what you’d expect to see from a good pitching prospect, and in the big leagues he kept the ball on the ground just 39.9% of the time. As a result, he can be homer prone.
- Smyly picked up enough service time this season that he’ll surely qualify for Super Two status and be arbitration-eligible four times instead of the usual three. Young players can get expensive in a hurry as Super Twos.
I like Smyly more than Baseball America seems too, but there’s no shame in being projected as a number three or four starter anyway. A lot of people seem to take that as an insult. Smyly, who turned 23 in June, has shown five pitches at the big league level and both the willingness and ability (these aren’t the same things) to throw strikes. He also hasn’t shown much (if any) of a platoon split thanks to the cutter. That’s all you can ask for from a young starter in the American League and his debut this season should be considered a positive sign. No doubt about it.
The Tigers are a pretty stacked team with few holes to fill, but their bullpen is still lacking in a major way. They insist they’re willing to open the season with prospect right-hander Bruce Rondon in the closer role, but I don’t buy that for a second. Owner Mike Ilitch didn’t spend all that money to have a kid with a 5.8 BB/9 (15.1 BB%) in the minors over the last two seasons pitching the late-innings. It’s not just the ninth inning either, they need setup help as well.
The Yankees don’t have a ton of relief depth to use in a trade, but for six years of Smyly they could totally offer up two years of David Robertson. There are enough free agent relievers still available — Matt Lindstrom, Mark Lowe, Brandon Lyon, and even Rafael Soriano stand out — that New York could find a capable replacement(s) for Robertson should they move him. Smyly would give them some much-needed young pitching depth from the left side, someone who could step right into a big league rotation if need be or spend time in Triple-A if things get crowded. It would be a very risky move, but also one that could help the Yankees both win now and win later.