Scouting The Free Agent Market: Scott Kazmir

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

The top three free agent pitchers have now signed with new teams, and several second tier options have come off the board as well, most notably Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, and John Lackey. This is a very good free agent class though, so there are plenty of solid pitchers still on the board, waiting to be signed.

One of them is left-hander Scott Kazmir, whose comeback story is truly remarkable. He was out of baseball almost completely four years ago due to ongoing injury problems, but he got healthy, reinvented himself on the mound, and has put together three very good big league seasons since. Is the current version of Kazmir a fit for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

The Indians brought Kazmir back from baseball purgatory three years ago with a low cost one-year contract. He took advantage and turned it into a two-year contract with the Athletics. Oakland traded him to the Astros at the deadline this past season. Here are Kazmir’s last three seasons.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 158.0 4.04 3.51 24.1% 7.0% 40.9% .348 .253
2014 190.1 3.55 3.35 21.1% 6.4% 43.8% .285 .304
2015 183.0 3.10 3.98 20.3% 7.7% 42.9% .285 .337
Total 531.1 3.54 3.61 21.8% 7.1% 42.6% .304 .299

Kazmir is a true fly ball pitcher. He’s not one of those guys with a low ground ball rate who makes up for it by getting a lot of infield pop-ups or something like that. (The pre-2015 version of Michael Pineda, basically.) His pop-up rate the last three years is 7.6%, below the league average, which hovers around 9.0% each year. Kazmir allows a lot of fly balls to the outfield and spacious O.co Coliseum definitely helped his ERA from 2014-15.

That said, Kazmir’s peripherals are pretty good too. His strikeout and walk rates are above-average for a starting pitcher, and his homer rate (0.93 HR/9 and 9.7 HR/FB%) is basically league average. I would expect the homer numbers to climb a bit with a move into Yankee Stadium because of the short porch and stuff. Kazmir hasn’t had a significant platoon split over the last three seasons but he has gotten progressively worse against lefties, which is weird.

So the overall numbers are good, but dig a tiny bit deeper and you’ll see Kazmir is basically a first half hitter. We hear about position players being first or second half hitters all the time, but we rarely hear about first or second half pitchers. Here are Kazmir’s first and second half splits over the last three seasons:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 Opp. Avg/OBP/SLG
First Half 304.2 3.04 3.61 22.9% 7.3% .92 .225/.287/.363
Second Half 226.2 4.21 3.86 20.3% 6.6% .96 .270/.324/.406

Kazmir’s performance has suffered in the second half since he resurfaced, especially the last two years. He had a 2.38 ERA (3.19 FIP) in the first half last year, then a 5.42 ERA (3.61 FIP) in the second half. This past season it was a 2.49 ERA (3.23 FIP) in the first half and a 3.86 ERA (4.90 FIP) in the second half. Given all the injuries he had earlier in this career, it’s entirely possible Kazmir can no longer hold his stuff over a full season, so his performance suffers.

Either way, Kazmir’s overall performance has been very good these last three seasons. So it’s skewed towards the first half. Big deal. The first half counts too. Kazmir can still miss bats and he doesn’t have a platoon split, plus I think the successful comeback — he was limited to 17.1 innings in 2011 by injuries, then pitched in an independent league and winter ball in 2012 in an effort to get noticed — is an indication he’s a pretty tough guy. He’s been through the grinder to get to where he is.

The Change In Stuff

Once upon a time, Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts as a 23-year-old because he had mid-90s gas and one of the best sliders you’ll ever see. That guy is long gone. Kazmir has morphed from a four-seamer/slider pitcher into a four-seamer/sinker/changeup pitcher. He’s also added a little cutter. Kazmir still throws some sliders, but the changeup is his go-to secondary pitch now.

Given his injury history and the way pitchers age in general, I’m not sure looking at Kazmir’s stuff from even three years ago tells us much about him going forward. He turns 32 in January, an age where even healthy pitchers start to slip, so I’m going to focus on his 2015 stuff. Here’s a quick breakdown (MLB averages for starters in parentheses.)

% Thrown Velo. Whiff% GB%
Four-Seamer 31.0% 93.1 (91.9) 10.6% (6.9%) 28.7% (37.9%)
Sinker 26.8% 91.8 (90.8) 6.5% (5.4%) 45.4% (49.5%)
Slider 7.7% 81.7 (84.5) 13.3% (15.2%) 41.9% (43.9%)
Changeup 18.1% 77.0 (83.3) 18.4%  (14.9%) 45.2% (47.8%)
Cutter 12.6% 87.8 (87.2) 11.0% (9.7%) 57.8% (43.0%)

Kazmir generated an above-average number of swings and misses with every pitch but the slider, which is funny because the slider was the pitch he rode to the AL strikeout crown in 2007. The cutter was his only reliable ground ball pitch this past season and it was only his fourth pitch based on usage. That changeup Kazmir now relies on gets an above-average number of whiffs and a league-average-ish number of grounders.

Interestingly, Kazmir is still able to generate above-average fastball velocity despite all those injuries. He has lost some oomph from his halcyon days with the (Devil) Rays, but overall the velocity is still above average. Of course, Kazmir has lost velocity as the season has progressed the last few years, leading to those second half slumps (via Brooks Baseball).

Scott Kazmir velocity

Kazmir’s fastball velocity actually improved as the 2013 season progressed, but the last two years the four-seamer and sinker have faded in the second half. The changeup velocity has faded too, allowing him to maintain that incredible separation with his fastball — the gap between his sinker and change was 14.8 mph in 2015, which is insane — but losing velocity is when bad things happens. Here’s some video of good Kazmir.

The current version of Kazmir is a five-pitch guy with two fastballs, a quality changeup, plus usable fourth (cutter) and fifth (slider) pitches. As cliche as it is, he’s become a pitcher now, getting outs by locating and keeping hitters off balance. Back in the day he used to be able to overpower hitters with his fastball and slider. His stuff was so good. He’s had to adjust due to the injuries and, as the results show these last three seasons, Kazmir’s made that adjustment.

Injury History

The arm injuries first started to set in back in 2006 and they continued through 2010. Kazmir’s back then gave him problems in 2011. Here’s a quick run down of his major injury issues.

2006: Shoulder fatigue and inflammation (52 days missed)
2008: Elbow strain (43 days missed)
2009: Quad strain (37 days missed)
2010: Shoulder soreness (48 days missed) and hamstring strain (24 days missed)
2011: Lower back strain (72 days missed)

Some of the injuries also lingered into the offseason. Kazmir has avoided major injuries the last few years but he has missed a few starts with nagging day-to-day stuff. Some general arm soreness hampered him early last year, and this past season he missed time with a triceps problem. You may remember Kazmir leaving a start against the Yankees after only three innings back in July. That’s when the triceps acted up.

The good news: Kazmir has never had any kind of surgery. He’s just had a lot of strains and fatigue and soreness and stuff like that. This isn’t a guy who had to go under the knife because of major structural damage. Still, Kazmir’s velocity is not what it once was and he’s had to revamp his pitching style to remain effective because the injuries robbed him of stuff. Give him credit for doing it. It doesn’t make his injury history any prettier though.

Contract Estimates

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a pretty big disconnect between how we perceive the market and the actual market. We’re a year or two behind, it seems. Contracts aren’t crazy, we’re just behind. Teams obviously have lots of money to spend and a willingness to spend it. Here are some estimates for Kazmir:

The dollars make perfect sense to me. I think Bowden’s $16.5M average annual value projection is closest to what Kazmir will actually get. (Remember, Samardzija got $18M per year.) The years are where it gets interesting. You want to keep it to three years because Kazmir’s had so many injury problems and he’s faded in the second half the last two years, but in this market he has every reason to ask for four years.

I get the feeling this is going to be one of those “the team that offers the fourth year is the team that gets him” situations. Kazmir is arguably the top pitcher left on the free agent market — it’s either Kazmir, Mike Leake, or Wei-Yin Chen at this point — and that gives him some leverage. The Dodgers and Cardinals figure to be in the mix, among others.

Wrapping Up

Kazmir’s reinvention really fascinates me. The guy has carved out a successful MLB career with two totally different pitching styles before his 32nd birthday. He still has velocity but has gotten away from relying on overpowering hitters, so in theory he should age better, assuming he stays healthy. At the same time, his arm feels like a ticking time bomb.

The Yankees have not been connected to Kazmir or really any free agent so far this offseason. They do need rotation help and Kazmir won’t require a substantial commitment, but he’s not going to be cheap either. The Yankees would have to change their “we’re not spending” approach to get him. Odds of that happening? Pretty small, I’d say.

Kazmir fits the Yankees because he’s quite good, first and foremost, plus he’s also a Yankee Stadium friendly left-hander who is familiar with the AL East to some extent. (It’s been a while since he was with Tampa though.) That said, I’m not sure another pitcher with health concerns who isn’t a lock for a lot of innings moves the needle much. The Yankees need reliability.

Scouting The Trade Market: Marcell Ozuna

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

Over the last 14 months or so, the Yankees have made five trades in an effort to get younger and add more athleticism to the roster. The trend started with Didi Gregorius, then continued with Nathan Eovaldi, Dustin Ackley, Aaron Hicks, and Starlin Castro. Each time the Yankees targeted a talented young player who needed a change of scenery.

Another young and talented player in need of a change of scenery is currently on the trade market: Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna. He’s been mentioned in all sorts of trade rumors this offseason, and since owner Jeffrey Loria wants him gone, it feels like only a matter of time until he’s traded. It was reported during the Winter Meetings last week that the Yankees have interest in Ozuna. Is he a fit for the Bombers? Let’s take a look.

The Offense

Ozuna, 25, has spent parts of three seasons in the big leagues already. In 2013 he played four games at High Class-A, ten games at Double-A, then was summoned to the big leagues. The Marlins skipped him right over Triple-A, and given his lack of time at Double-A, they basically brought him to the show straight from Single-A. Here are Ozuna’s career offensive stats:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR K% BB% wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs. LHP
2013 291 .265/.303/.389 91 3 19.6% 4.5% 79 131
2014 612 .269/.317/.455 115 23 26.8% 6.7% 118 102
2015 494 .259/.308/.383 89 10 22.3% 6.1% 76 145
Total 1,397 .265/.311/.416 101 36 23.7% 6.0% 95 123

Ozuna is a right-handed hitter, which explains why he’s been quite a bit better against southpaws so far in his young career. He does have power — 23 homers in 612 plate appearances while playing your home games is Marlins Park is nothing to sneeze at — but he doesn’t draw very many walks, so his OBPs won’t be anything great.

As you’d expect given those strikeout and walk rates, Ozuna has swung at 34.3% of the pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone the last three years, a bit above the 31.3% league average but not insanely so. Ozuna’s chase rate is on par with guys like Robinson Cano (35.3%) and Eric Hosmer (34.8%), and they’re quality hitters despite taking some bad swings.

Ozuna’s contact rate (73.2%) is much lower than Cano’s (85.4%) and Hosmer’s (81.7%) though, and lower than the league average in general (79.3%). So while he’s not a total hacker who swings at everything like, say, Pablo Sandoval (44.6% chase rate) or Adam Jones (43.3%), Ozuna doesn’t have the contact ability to make it work like some other guys.

Here’s a snippet off Baseball America’s scouting report (subs. req’d) heading into the 2013 season, the last time Ozuna was prospect eligible. They ranked him as Miami’s fifth best prospect behind Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, Andrew Heaney, and Jake Marisnick.

He has the power to drive the ball well out of any part of the park, though he tends to get pull-happy at times, flying open with his front side instead of staying back and punishing the ball. Plate-discipline issues that plagued him early in his career have eased significantly as he has advanced, though at times he’ll revert to guessing and chasing breaking balls down and out of the strike zone. When he swings at strikes, he rarely misses, thanks to excellent hand-eye coordination.

Ozuna’s overall contact rate may be below-average, but his career contact rate on pitches in the zone is 85.6%, which is more or less league average (86.7%). So the problem is discipline and not necessarily pitch recognition or bad hitting mechanics. He wouldn’t make as much contact in the zone if he couldn’t recognize pitches or had an ugly swing.

That is more or less the Alfonso Soriano hitting profile. Ozuna will dive you crazy when he chases sliders off the plate, but man, when he gets something to handle, he does major damage. Soriano is a big time outlier among players with this approach — most guys like this wind up Quad-A types — though Ozuna has over 1,300 big league plate appearances of league average production under his belt. That’s not insignificant.

The Baseball America scouting report also praises Ozuna’s passion for the game and says he “oozes tools,” though his “slightly above-average speed and average instincts” have yet to translate into big stolen totals. He’s 10-for-15 in big league stolen base attempts and has only one minor league season with more than eight steals. Ozuna has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 45% of the time in his career. The league average is 40%.

Ozuna has some serious offensive upside thanks to his power — he has 70 doubles in addition to those 36 career homers, and Marlins Park has done his career .151 ISO no favors — but his lack of plate discipline is a major drawback. It wouldn’t be completely unprecedented for a guy like Ozuna to improve his discipline and approach, though it won’t be an easy adjustment either. Being a hacker is in his DNA.

The Defense

Ozuna is a pretty big dude — he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 225 lbs. — but he’s so athletic that he moves well in the outfield and has rated as an above-average gloveman according to the various defensive metrics. And yes, sample size warnings still apply at this point of his career.

Although he’s a natural center fielder, Ozuna has played both right and left field on occasion for the Marlins, so he’s familiar with all three outfield spots. Baseball America’s scouting report says he also has a “cannon arm,” and, well, look:

Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff. As much as I love dingers and speed and all that, a rocket arm is the most exciting tool in baseball in by book. Throws like the ones Ozuna is capable of making can be breathtaking at times.

Anyway, Ozuna is a two-way player who offers above-average glovework in addition to his promising power potential and thus far league average offense. The defense is a carrying tool, really. That’s the reason Ozuna has contributed 6.5 fWAR in 346 career games, or roughly 3.0 fWAR per 162 games. He’s not a guy who needs to hit and hit big to be a positive contributor. His glove alone makes his valuable.

Injury History

Ozuna has suffered three significant injuries in his career and every single one was the result of an aggressive play in the outfield. He broke a bone in his left wrist making a diving catch in the minors in 2010. He then broke the same wrist crashing into the wall in Spring Training 2013. Then, in July 2013, he broke his left thumb and tore ligaments making a diving play.

Hand and wrist injuries are very bad, though the silver lining here is that Ozuna rebounded from the two 2013 injuries to have a stellar 2014 campaign, so there are no lingering effects. It’s easy to say these are fluke injuries since they happened on dives and stuff, but Ozuna plays hard, and when you dive in the outfield and crash into walls, you’re prone to injuries like this. They’re the result of his style of play.

Contract Situation

The Marlins really are a weaselly organization. They’re the cartoon bad guy twirling his mustache of baseball organizations. Ozuna got off to a slow start this past season, so Miami took advantage and sent him to Triple-A for six weeks, which was juuust long enough to prevent from becoming a Super Two after the season. He fell six days short of the service time cutoff.

Ozuna was hitting .249/.301/.337 (75 wRC+) at the time of the demotion, so it wasn’t entirely undeserved, but the Marlins deserve no benefit of the doubt. They did the same thing with Logan Morrison a few years ago, so this is not the first time they’ve done it. Scott Boras, Ozuna’s agent, ripped the Marlins for their service time shenanigans after the season, then there was the whole thing about the racist recording someone apparently tried to use to get team president David Samson fired. I dunno, man. I’m just the messenger.

So anyway, thanks to that well-timed six-week demotion, Ozuna is currently sitting on two years and 124 days of service time. He has four years of control remaining. One as a pre-arbitration player and then the usual three years of arbitration eligibility. His eventual new team can thank the Marlins for saving them some cash by preventing Ozuna from becoming a Super Two.

What Would It Take?

For what it’s worth, Jayson Stark hears the Marlins have put an Ozuna trade on the back-burner for the time being. They’re still willing to listen but are no longer actively shopping him. Miami was said to be seeking young pitching for Ozuna, and Jerry Crasnick reports they asked the Mariners for Taijuan Walker, the Royals for Yordano Ventura, and the Indians for Danny Salazar, so yeah.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Regardless of what the Marlins are asking, four years of a young two-way outfielder with power potential is pretty valuable, even though the plate discipline issues are a significant red flag. Guys like that don’t get traded very often. I’ve found one comparable trade: Carlos Gomez. During the 2009-10 offseason the Twins traded four years of Gomez to the Brewers for two years of J.J. Hardy, straight up.

In a way, Ozuna now is similar to Gomez then. Both had incredible tools but struggled with plate discipline, and they were both very good center fielders. At the time Gomez was a better defender, but Ozuna has put up much better offensive numbers in his career than Gomez did back then. Gomez is one of those hacky hitters who learned just enough plate discipline to become a very good everyday player. Ozuna has similar upside.

Unfortunately, the Gomez trade doesn’t really help us determine Ozuna’s trade value. If the Marlins are sticking to their guns about young pitching, the Yankees simply don’t have any to offer outside Luis Severino, and that’s just not happening. I don’t think two years of Michael Pineda would entice Miami given his injury history, not without a really nice second piece.

Wrapping Up

The Yankees have been targeting these young, talented, out of favor players over the last year or so and Ozuna fits the bill perfectly. The only real issue is that they’re already loaded with outfielders, both at the MLB and Triple-A levels. Acquiring Ozuna means the Yankees almost would have to trade Brett Gardner just to make the roster work.

I do like Ozuna’s tools — how could you not? — and I think he could do some real damage in Yankee Stadium. Add in the strong defense and you’ve got a nice player on your hands. That he hits right-handed and would balance New York’s lineup is a bonus. The plate discipline problem is real though, and it creates a lot of risk. Ozuna’s pretty boom-or-busty.

On paper, Ozuna is the type of player the Yankees have been acquiring of late. He’s very much available — Loria is said to hate Ozuna, and if the owner hates you, you’re pretty much a goner — but finding a deal that works with the Marlins won’t be easy, especially if they stick to their young pitcher demand. I get the feeling we’ll hear the Yankees connected to Ozuna again in the coming weeks.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tony Sipp

(Sarah Crabill/Getty)
(Sarah Crabill/Getty)

Over the last few offseasons, the Yankees have only spent whatever comes off the books following the season. They put the money back into the team and that’s basically it, no more. The Yankees only shed about $20M in player salaries after the 2015 season, and a little less than half that will go to covering arbitration raises. It’s no surprise they’re focusing on trades now.

Spending some (any) of those limited dollars on a relief pitcher may not seem like a smart idea, but with substantial rotation help unlikely to be on the way, improving the relief crew make sense. Besides, there’s a chance the Yankees could land themselves a bargain in left-hander Tony Sipp, who remains unsigned even though relievers are now coming off the board every few hours. Is he a fit? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Sipp is a journeyman. He started his career with the Indians, was traded to the Diamondbacks in the three-team deal that also sent Didi Gregorius to the desert, signed with the Padres as a free agent, then landed with the Astros as a free agent after being released by San Diego. The 32-year-old has thrown 363 innings in parts of seven MLB seasons (3.50 ERA and 4.21 FIP).

After arriving in Houston in 2014, Sipp’s performance improved considerably. Here are his last two seasons with the Astros and his two seasons prior to joining Houston.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2012 55.0 4.42 4.68 21.9% 9.9% 32.9% 1.47 .353 .288
2013 37.2 4.78 4.88 24.0% 12.6% 26.0% 1.43 .306 .378
2014 50.2 3.38 2.93 31.8% 8.6% 31.3% 0.89 .235 .227
2015 54.1 1.99 2.93 28.7% 6.9% 38.8% 0.83 .265 .265

Gosh, that’s like two different pitchers. Once he arrived in Houston, Sipp’s strikeout rate skyrocketed and he figured out how to retire right-handed batters, so he was no longer a left-on-left matchup guy. He was a true one-inning pitcher the last two seasons who just so happened to be left-handed.

Sipp’s walk rate is a little high — I’m not sure I’d count on him sustaining a 6.9% walk rate going forward, not based on his career to date — and he doesn’t get grounders, though that’s not necessarily a big deal because he’s been an extreme infield fly ball guy. His career rate is 13.5% infield pop-ups. The MLB average hovers around 9.0% each year. Strikeouts and pop-ups are a really great recipe for success.

Obviously there are reasons to be skeptical. Relievers work in small samples and weird stuff happens. When a career journeyman like Sipp suddenly puts it together, it’s easy to think it’s a fluke. There is a tangible reason for the improved performance against right-handers though, which led to the overall success. Let’s look at that now.

The Stuff

For the vast majority of his career, Sipp was a low-90s fastball/low-80s slider guy. Pretty generic. There are about a zillion lefties in pro ball with similar stuff. But, after picking him up off the scrap heap, the Astros got Sipp to use his splitter more often. Check it out:

Tony Sipp pitch selection

We saw Nathan Eovaldi go through the process of learning a splitter this summer. It’s not as simple as throwing the pitch more often. You have to get comfortable with it and throw it with conviction. That can take time.

The Astros got Sipp to use his splitter more often last year, and by this summer he was throwing it almost as often as his slider. It’s gone from show-me third pitch to legit weapon. That explains the improved performance against righties. Sipp now has a weapon for batters of the opposite hand. There’s an honest to goodness explanation for the improvement.

Middle reliever highlight videos are not exactly a hot internet commodity, but here’s a short look at Sipp’s split-finger fastball in action:

Chris Colabello, the last batter in the video, took that fastball down the middle because he was expecting a two-strike splitter out of the zone, the pitch Sipp used to strike out the first two batters. The splitter changes everything. The split itself gets swings and misses and it helps his fastball play up.

Sipp improved the last two years because he changed as a pitcher. Whether the improved performance is sustainable long-term remains to be seen, but, for now, all we need to understand the success is not a fluke. He added a new pitch and it changed his profile.

Injury History

Sipp had Tommy John surgery back in July 2007 but has been healthy since. No DL stints, no day-to-day injuries, nothing. The elbow reconstruction is the only significant injury of his career. (He did miss three weeks with an oblique strain in 2006, which … whatever.) By 32-year-old journeyman reliever standards, Sipp’s medical history is about as clean as you’re going to find.

Contract Estimates

Well, if there’s one thing we’ve learned this offseason, it’s that teams have a lot of money to spend. Contracts have been larger than projected in general, and that includes free agent relievers. For information purposes, here are Sipp’s various contract estimates (he didn’t receive a qualifying offer, so there’s no draft pick attached):

For what it’s worth, Jerry Crasnick reported yesterday that Sipp is looking for three years and $5M to $6M annually. That’s basically Zach Duke (three years, $15M) and Boone Logan (three years, $16.5M) money, and hey, maybe those are cautionary tales. Duke and Logan have been pretty terrible since signing their big free agent deals, and similar to Sipp, Duke had a tangible explanation for his sudden success because he reinvented himself as a side-armer.

Wrapping Up

The free agent bullpen market was pretty weak coming into the offseason and most of the top guys have already come off the board. Darren O’Day received four years and $32M. Joakim Soria got three years and $25M. Mark Lowe got two years and $13M. Heck, Ryan Madson got three years and $22M despite not pitching at all from 2012-14 due to an ugly medical history.

When I saw Sipp wanted only three years at $5M or $6M per year, it stood out to me as a bargain in this market. I thought Sipp was undervalued a bit coming into the offseason, but man, seeing those reliever contracts makes his asking price really seem like a good deal to me. The splitter explains his sudden success and he’s done it two years in a row now. This wasn’t a one-year blip. He did it in 2014 and did it again 2015 as he continued to emphasize the splitter.

The Yankees may not have much money to spend this offseason, but it appears Sipp can provide some real bang for the buck. Forget the left-handed thing. He’s a setup man caliber reliever capable of throwing full innings. He can provide additional bullpen depth and also help cushion the blow if the Yankees do indeed decide to trade Andrew Miller at some point. There’s always room in the bullpen for another good reliever anyway.

I can understand why anyone would be skeptical of Sipp going forward, especially since he’s not young, though I am a believer in the splitter and his ability to sustain his 2014-15 success going forward. It’s risky. No doubt about it. All reliever contracts are. Sipp does strike me as a great value play at his asking price though. Extra bullpen depth to help protect against a rotation littered with health concerns may not be a bad way for the Yankees to use their limited dollars.

Scouting the Trade Market: Joe Ross

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

This past season the Nationals were the undisputed most disappointing team in baseball. They were expected to not only win the NL East in a landslide, but be a serious World Series contender. Instead, they went 83-79 and finished seven games back of the Mets thanks to injuries and poor individual performances. Basically everyone except Bryce Harper is to blame.

GM Mike Rizzo is tasked with picking up the pieces this offseason. He already fired the entire coaching (and training) staff and brought in Dusty Baker to run the clubhouse. Rizzo also has to replace several big name free agents, most notably Ian Desmond, Denard Span, and Jordan Zimmermann. Trea Turner can step in at short to replace Desmond, but finding a center fielder and starter will be more difficult.

Despite their disappointing season, the Nationals do still have a lot of talent on their roster, including 22-year-old right-hander Joe Ross, the younger brother of Padres righty Tyson Ross. Washington acquired the younger Ross from the Rays with Turner in the Steven Souza trade last winter. The Rays got him from the Padres in the Wil Myers deal a few days earlier. San Diego selected Ross in the first round (25th overall) of the 2011 draft.

Nick Cafardo recently reported Ross is “one of the most sought-after pitchers of the offseason,” which makes sense because he’s a good young starter. Those guys are always in demand. Cafardo says Rizzo is resisting all offers at the moment, but that could change depending how the offseason plays out. The Yankees are looking high and low for young controllable pitching this offseason, so is Ross a potential fit? Let’s look.

2015 Performance

Ross started this season in Double-A, made nine starts (2.81 ERA and 2.80 FIP), then was called up to the Nationals for a three-game cameo. Washington eventually sent him down to Triple-A for five more starts (2.19 ERA and 3.85 FIP), then called him back to the big leagues for good in late-July. He replaced the struggling Doug Fister in the rotation.

All told, Ross had a 3.64 ERA (3.42 FIP) in 76.2 big league innings spread across 13 starts and three relief appearances. (The Nats moved him to the bullpen at the end of the season to control his workload.) He had very strong strikeout (22.0%), walk (6.7%), grounder (49.8%), and home run (0.82 HR/9) rates. I’m not sure what more you could want from a 22-year-old kid making his MLB debut.

Ross’ overall numbers are impressive, so let’s look at some platoon splits.

TBF AVG/OBP/SLG (wOBA) K% BB% GB% HR/9 Soft% Hard% FIP
vs. RHB 160 .170/.209/.252 (.205) 26.3% 3.8% 63.6% 0.62 24.3% 20.7% 2.58
vs. LHB 154 .275/.353/.456 (.351) 17.5% 9.7% 35.8% 1.08 11.7% 38.7% 4.51

Obviously small sample size warnings apply, but gosh, that’s a massive platoon split. Ross totally dominated right-handed batters during his time with the Nationals but got knocked around pretty good by lefties. For what it’s worth, he had a negligible platoon split during his time in the minors this past season, but that’s not uncommon. Good pitching prospects tend to have success against everyone in the minors.

Plenty of starters put together long careers with a platoon split, though I’m not sure anyone has done it with a platoon split quite that extreme. Ross is still only 22, so he’s not a finished product. Figuring out a way to combat lefties is at the top of his (and his organization’s) to-do list going forward. Holding opposite hand hitters to even league average numbers would make Ross an above-average starter given his success against righties.

The Stuff

Coming into the season, Ross was a borderline top 100 prospect who jumped into top 50 prospect territory by midseason thanks to his Double-A and Triple-A dominance (and brief MLB competence). Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Ross as the 23rd best prospect in the game in his midseason update while Baseball America and MLB.com had him 31st and 33rd, respectively. Here’s a snippet of Baseball America’s preseason scouting report:

He shows two plus pitches with consistency, though his changeup still has a long way to go for scouts to confidently peg him as a quality starter. Ross pitches at 93-94 mph and tops out at 97 with above-average riding life on his fastball, which helps him keep the ball on the ground and home runs off the board. He can alter batters’ eye level with a power slider that darts out of the zone and flashes plus potential. He loses velocity in later innings and doesn’t have the best feel for mixing his pitches.

That lack of a changeup — Ross threw the changeup only 6.8% of the time in the big leagues — explains the struggles against left-handed batters. This isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Young pitchers often lack a reliable changeup because they never really needed one before. They dominated in high school and college and even in the minors without one. Ross is hardly an exception here.

Even if he improves the changeup down the road, the fastball and slider will always be Ross’ bread and butter. He’s similar to Michael Pineda in that sense. (And his brother Tyson, in fact.) Pineda has done a nice job developing a usable changeup the last two years but it’s always going to lag behind his heater and slider. The same will likely be true for Ross.

Anyway, here’s some video of Ross in action so you can actually see what his pitches look like:

Interestingly, the PitchFX gurus at Brooks Baseball classify Ross’ fastball as a sinker because it moves so much. That’s the “above-average riding life” mentioned in the Baseball America scouting report. And you can see that movement in the video. Ross’ fastball runs back in on righties and that’s a great way to get ground balls and limit extra-base hits. The movement helps keep the ball off the barrel.

The video sure makes Ross’ fastball-slider combination look great — I don’t remember seeing any changeups in there — but it is a highlight video, so it’s only going to show good pitches. Here are some numbers that paint a broader picture. (There are his numbers as a starter only. I removed those three relief appearances at the end of the season.)

% Thrown Avg Velo Max Velo Whiff% (MLB Avg) GB% (MLB Avg)
Sinker 57.4% 93.7 97.7 4.7% (5.4%) 51.8% (49.5%)
Slider 35.8% 84.2 88.3 24.9% (15.2%) 52.4% (43.9%)
Changeup 6.8% 87.4 90.7 7.1% (14.9%) 40.0% (47.8%)

For at least this past season, Ross had an elite slider in terms of swing-and-miss rate and ground ball rate. Both numbers were well-above-average compared to the league averages for sliders. The sinker was more or less average and the changeup … well the changeup was bad. Leave it at that.

Much like Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi, the idea with Ross would be acquiring a guy with good raw ability and helping him get to the next level by teaching him an offspeed pitch. Pineda’s made some progress with the changeup and Eovaldi really took to the splitter this summer. Ross’ fastball and slider are a great starting point. Get him to develop and trust a usable third pitch changeup and you’ve got yourself a nice looking young starter.

Injury History

Ross is a pretty big guy at 6-foot-4 and 205 lbs., so he has the look of a workhorse, but size doesn’t always equal durability. He’s had two notable injuries in his career. Shoulder tendinitis forced Ross to miss close to two months in the middle of the 2012 season, and shoulder fatigue ended his 2014 season in early-August.

Shoulder woes are always a red flag, though the good news is Ross hasn’t had any kind of strain or structural damage that required surgery. Just a little tendinitis and fatigue. (He was healthy in 2015 as well.) Not great news but not the end of the world either. The Baseball America scouting report noted Ross struggles to hold his velocity deep into games and that was certainly true this summer, so stamina is a concern.

Joe Ross velocity

That’s his time as a starter only. It doesn’t include those three relief appearances in September, when the Nationals basically shut Ross down for workload reasons.

There’s some who believe Ross is destined for the bullpen long-term because he lacks a changeup and doesn’t hold his velocity deep into starts, and that’s a valid opinion. I do think it’s way too early to say Ross is destined for the bullpen, however. He’s only thrown 452.1 innings in his entire career. Gotta give him more time than that to work on his changeup and other stuff, right?

Contract Situation

This is easy: Ross was added to the 40-man roster and called up to MLB for the first time this June. He is sitting on 94 days of service time, meaning he has all six years of team control remaining and is not on pace to be a Super Two player if he never returns to the minors, so you’d be getting three pre-arbitration and three arbitration years. Ross did burn a minor league option when he was sent back to Triple-A in late-June, so he has two left.

Possible Cost

This is always the tricky part, coming up with comparable players who were traded, giving us an idea of Ross’ trade value. Ross himself was traded twice this past offseason, which helps a little, but not much because he was a prospect then and now he’s a guy with some MLB success under his belt. That makes a big difference. Also, Ross was part of a package of players each time, so isolating his trade value is tough.

Ross shot up and became a consensus top 50 prospect this summer, and he has six full years of team control left, so that’s our starting point. Here are similar top 50-ish pitching prospects (per Baseball America) who were traded in recent years:

  • Daniel Norris: Part of a three-player package for a half-season of David Price.
  • Matt Wisler: Part of a four-player package for three years of Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton.
  • Andrew Heaney Part I: Part of a four-player package for four years of Dee Gordon and one year of Dan Haren.
  • Andrew Heaney Part II: Straight up for one year of Howie Kendrick.
  • Chris Archer: Part of a four-player package for three years of Matt Garza.
  • Casey Kelly: Part of a three-player package for one year of Adrian Gonzalez.
  • Zack Wheeler: Straight up for a half-season of Carlos Beltran.

Does this help us any? Eh, not really. Only Norris (30 innings) and Heaney (29.1 innings) had MLB experience at the time of their trades. Wheeler was in High-A, Archer and Kelly were in Double-A, and Wisler was in Triple-A. Not many young pitchers like Ross — under control for six years but with some big league success and experience under their belt — get traded these days.

Wrapping Up

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

It’s very hard to ignore the Yankees and Nationals match up really well for a trade. Washington needs a center fielder and leadoff hitter to replace Span (Brett Gardner …. or Jacoby Ellsbury?), they want another high-end reliever (Andrew Miller), and they could use rotation depth after losing Zimmermann and Fister (Ivan Nova).

The Yankees are not necessarily shopping Gardner, Miller, or Nova, but their names are out there and the team seems very willing to listen to offers. A young controllable starter like Ross is said to be atop their wish list. Of course, the Nats need a young and controllable starter too since Zimmermann’s gone and Stephen Strasburg will be a free agent next offseason.

The lack of a changeup and the shoulder woes are definite red flags, but Ross is the kind of pitcher the Yankees have been targeting in recent years: big fastball, low walk rate, and physically big. They’re obviously confident in pitching coach Larry Rothschild‘s ability to teach an offspeed pitch — they wouldn’t have acquired Pineda and Eovaldi if they weren’t — so I doubt the lack of a changeup scares them. They’ve accepted that challenge before, multiple times.

Maybe there is a deal to be built around the Gardner-for-Ross or Miller-for-Ross framework. I wouldn’t say each team is dealing from a position of depth — is Ross a surplus for the Nationals? is Miller a surplus for the Yankees? — but they would be addressing a clear need. The real question isn’t Ross’ talent and ability. It’s whether the Nationals and Rizzo are even open to moving him.

Scouting the Trade Market: Hard-throwing strike-throwers who fit Yankees’ mold

Salazar, Carrasco, and Anderson could all be trade targets. (Presswire)
Salazar, Carrasco, and Anderson could all be trade targets. (Presswire)

According to pretty much every report we’ve seen this offseason, the Yankees are looking for pitching in any trade. They’re said to at least be listening to offers for Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller, if not shopping them. Payroll isn’t going up next season and the Yankees didn’t have much money come off the books, so trades are the only real avenue for significant improvement.

The current rotation is again full of question marks — Masahiro Tanaka just had elbow surgery, Nathan Eovaldi had an elbow injury at the end of the year, CC Sabathia‘s knee is an ongoing issue, etc. — and the future rotation is pretty wide open. Tanaka (opt-out), Eovaldi, Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova can all become free agents within the next two years, leaving Luis Severino and Adam Warren for the 2018 rotation.

Obviously that is a long way away — the 2013 Yankees got 103 starts from Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and David Phelps, for example, so things change in a hurry — but that doesn’t mean the Yankees are wrong to worry about it now. If they’re going to deal Gardner and/or Miller, getting young controllable pitching in return makes all the sense in the world.

Over the last few years the Yankees have made it clear they have a “type,” when it comes to pitching. They love hard-throwers with very low walk rates, and the taller they are, the better. They didn’t just pick Pineda and Eovaldi out of a hat, you know. Both came to New York with huge fastballs and a low walk rate. Eovaldi (6-foot-2) isn’t as big as Pineda (6-foot-7), but he also throws 100, so yeah.

So, using all of this information, we can dig up some potential pitching trade targets for the Yankees. This isn’t to say the Yankees are (or should) pursuing these guys — or that they’re even available — but they fit what has been established as their preferred type of pitcher. Obviously some of these guys are more attainable than others, though it is interesting several are on teams who appear to match up with the Yankees for a potential trade. To the alphabetically ordered list.

RHP Cody Anderson, Indians
2015 Average Fastball Velocity: 92.1 mph (96.9 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 6.6%
Height: 6-foot-4
Years of Control: Six (three pre-arbitration and three arbitration years)

The Indians have a ton of starting pitchers, so much so that they’ve discussed trading one to address their outfield needs. They’ve spoken to the Yankees about an outfielder-for-starter trade, for example. Anderson, 24, had a 3.05 ERA (4.27 FIP) in 15 starts and 91.1 innings around an oblique injury this past season. He has above-average velocity and a history of limiting walks, though his strikeout rate (12.1%) was way below-average this year. For what it’s worth, his minor league strikeout rate (18.5%) wasn’t great either.

RHP Carlos Carrasco, Indians
2015 Average Velocity: 94.5 mph (98.8 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 5.9%
Height: 6-foot-3
Years of Control: Three (owed $19M through 2018 plus club options for 2019 and 2020)

We’ve discussed Carrasco here before, albeit briefly. Assuming Corey Kluber is off limits, the 28-year-old Carrasco is the best available Indians starter. He moved from the bullpen back into the rotation late last season, and this year he pitched to 3.63 ERA (2.84 FIP) with an elite strikeout (29.6%) rate and an excellent ground ball (51.2%) rate in 30 starts and 183.2 innings. The high-ish ERA has more to do with Cleveland’s poor team defense than anything Carrasco did. Carrasco is not super young (he turns 29 in March) but he’s signed to a dirt cheap contract and has pitched at an ace level in 40 starts since returning to the rotation. If he is actually available, it’ll cost a ton to get him.

LHP Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks
2015 Average Velocity: 92.1 mph (96.2 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 4.8%
Height: 6-foot-2
Years of Control: Three (all arbitration years)

Tommy John surgery limited Corbin, a native New Yorker, to 16 starts and 85.1 innings in 2015. His performance (3.60 ERA and 3.35 FIP) was on par with his breakout 2013 season (3.41 ERA and 3.43 FIP) before the elbow caused him to miss 2014. His strikeout (21.9%) and grounder (46.9%) rates were right in line with 2013 as well (20.7% and 46.7%). Recent Tommy John surgery is always a red flag, though it’s good to see the results and PitchFX data show Corbin was basically the same pitcher in 2015 as he was before elbow reconstruction. The D’Backs have some rotation depth and they have checked in with the Yankees about Miller, so maybe there is a Corbin for Miller plus stuff deal to be made. Remember though, Corbin is Arizona’s ace, so they may consider him untouchable, especially with three years of control remaining.

RHP Jose Fernandez, Marlins
2015 Average Velocity: 95.9 mph (99.5 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 5.3%
Height: 6-foot-2
Years of Control: Three (all arbitration years)

Depending who you want to believe, either the Marlins are open to moving the 23-year-old Fernandez because he’s a headache, or he’s completely untouchable. Reports supporting both scenarios have popped up in recent days. Either way, Fernandez is as good as it gets, pitching to a 2.92 ERA (2.24 FIP) in eleven starts and 64.1 innings this year after returning from Tommy John surgery. I wrote more about Fernandez in last week’s mailbag. The question isn’t so much is Fernandez available, but do the Yankees even have what it takes to outbid other clubs if he is? I’m leaning towards no on that one.

RHP Kevin Gausman, Orioles
2015 Average Velocity: 95.9 mph (100.3 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 6.2%
Height: 6-foot-4
Years of Control: Five (one pre-arbitration and four arbitration years as a Super Two)

Various reports indicate Gausman was a popular target at the trade deadline — the Tigers wanted him for Yoenis Cespedes, the Padres wanted him for Justin Upton, and the Rockies wanted him for Carlos Gonzalez. Baltimore said no each time, obviously. The O’s have a terrible track record of developing pitchers, and the 24-year-old Gausman followed his strong 2014 season (3.57 ERA and 3.41 FIP) with an okay at best 2015 (4.25 ERA and 4.10 FIP) while being moved back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. Gausman seems like an ideal change of scenery guy, but I have a really hard time seeing him as a realistic target. Orioles owner Peter Angelos hates the Yankees and wouldn’t risk trading Gausman only to watch him develop into a stud in pinstripes. So yeah, Gausman fits the mold as a hard-throwing strike-thrower, but this ain’t happening.

RHP Jonathan Gray, Rockies
2015 Average Velocity: 94.3 mph (98.2 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 7.6%
Height: 6-foot-4
Years of Control: Six (three pre-arbitration plus three arbitration years)

Gray, 24, came into the season as the No. 24 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, then came up late in the season and got Coors Fielded (5.53 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 40.2 innings). He did miss bats (21.6%) but didn’t get a ton of grounders (43.2%) in his limited action. The Yankees do have some history with Gray, selecting him in the tenth round of the 2011 draft, but he turned down a ton of money to go to college.

The Rockies haven’t been able to develop pitching in forever, and while trading someone like Gray seems silly, GM Jeff Bridich recently told Patrick Saunders he is “open to anything, I mean it” to improve the team, including trading young pitching. Gardner and Miller don’t appear to be matches for the Rockies — why would they want a 32-year-old outfielder or an expensive closer? — but maybe other pieces like Gary Sanchez and Jorge Mateo could entice Colorado.

LHP Andrew Heaney, Angels
2015 Average Velocity: 91.5 mph (94.9 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 6.4%
Height: 6-foot-2
Years of Control: Six (two pre-arbitration plus four arbitration years as a Super Two)

Heaney, 24, was traded twice last offseason — first for Dee Gordon then for Howie Kendrick a few hours later — and now the Angels have a new GM, and new GMs tend to trade away incumbent players because they aren’t attached to them. That said, Heaney had a really good year (3.49 ERA and 3.73 FIP in 105.2 innings) and the Halos just traded their top two pitching prospects for Andrelton Simmons, so dealing another young starter seems unlikely. Then again, the Halos do desperately need a left fielder and leadoff hitter, and perhaps GM Billy Eppler is particularly fond of Gardner after all his years with the Yankees. My guess is he values the young lefty more, but you never know.

RHP Wily Peralta, Brewers
2015 Average Velocity: 94.1 mph (97.6 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 7.7%
Height: 6-foot-1
Years of Control: Three (all arbitration years)

The Brewers are in full blown tear it down and rebuild mode, and the 26-year-old Peralta is one of the few players left on the roster with actual trade value. Unfortunately, he battled shoulder tendinitis this summer and had a miserable year, pitching to a 4.72 ERA (4.84 FIP) in 20 starts and 108.2 innings. Also, Peralta’s strikeout rate fell from 18.4% in 2014 to a well-below-average 12.6% in 2015, and gosh, that’s scary. He has gradually lowered his walk rate over the years and he’s always gotten grounders (51.6% in 2015), though the combination of a shoulder problem and a huge strikeout drop is a major red flag. Besides, the Brewers have no use for Gardner or Miller, so we’re talking a prospect package.

RHP Danny Salazar, Indians
2015 Average Velocity: 94.9 mph (98.7 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 7.0%
Height: 6-foot-0
Years of Control: Five (two pre-arbitration and three arbitration years)

Yet another Indians starter. They’ve got a lot of them. Salazar, 25, presumably lies somewhere between Carrasco and Anderson in trade value, but closer to Carrasco. He’s always had a history of limiting walks and this summer he had a great strikeout rate (25.8%) and an average-ish grounder rate (43.9%) in 185 innings, his first full season as a big leaguer (3.45 ERA and 3.62 FIP). Cleveland seems open to trading a starter for the right return, though it’s unclear if the Yankees can offer that return, regardless of whether it includes Gardner.

RHP Taijuan Walker, Mariners
2015 Average Velocity: 94.1 mph (98.2 mph max)
2015 Walk Rate: 5.7%
Height: 6-foot-4
Years of Control: Five (two pre-arbitration and three arbitration years)

The Yankees and Mariners discussed Gardner a few weeks ago, and last week George King reported the Yankees asked for Walker, which apparently ended talks. (Why do we always hear talks ended because the first ask was high? Aren’t you supposed to, you know, negotiate?) The 23-year-old Walker had an okay year this season (4.56 ERA and 4.07 FIP in 169.2 innings) but was extremely homer prone (1.33 HR/9) despite playing his home games in Safeco Field. But still, he’s a former top prospect with quality stuff, so the appeal is obvious. The Mariners refused to trade Walker for David Price a few years ago, though that was under ex-GM Jack Zduriencik. New GM Jerry Dipoto may be more open to moving Walker. Also, even though Seattle just acquired Leonys Martin, they still have a need for outfielders, so Gardner still makes some sense, though obviously Gardner-for-Walker ain’t happening. It would have to be Gardner plus stuff for the young righty.

* * *

By no means is this list intended to be comprehensive. Plenty of starters either throw hard or limit walks, but surprisingly few do both, and even fewer might actually be available this offseason. (Something tells me others like Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard are staying put, you guys.) Guys like Robbie Ray and Jimmy Nelson throw hard but walk too many hitters. Others like Josh Tomlin and Chase Anderson limit walks but work with average velocity or less.

Through their various pickups the last few years the Yankees have made it clear they like hard-throwers with low walk rates. Even small additions like Chris Martin fit the bill. The Yankees are said to be looking for starters this offseason for obvious reasons, and unless they unexpectedly shift gears, they figure to again target high-velocity, low-walk pitchers. It’s an exclusive club and those guys tend to cost quite a bit to acquire, but they aren’t off-limits either.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Wei-Yin Chen

(Getty Images)

Recently, reports indicated that the Yankees will pursue the free agent lefty Wei-Yin Chen. The team’s interest in adding starting pitching in general is not surprising. As Mike and many others noted, the rotation is full of question marks.

I will elaborate on this later but Wei-Yin Chen isn’t really a guy that brings uncertainty. He’s a solid mid-rotation pitcher that shows up, pitches solidly more often than not, but does not fit into that “ace” mold. He’s shown that for four seasons in MLB. Yanks probably won’t need to break a bank to get him a la David Price or Johnny Cueto, but he won’t be too cheap either (Boras client, market likes paying big bucks for a starting pitcher, etc.). It will all come down to how highly the front office thinks of Chen and how much they are willing to pay. (Also, if they want to sacrifice a draft pick for him, of course)

Recent Performance

Barring a major injury or sudden decline, Wei-Yin Chen seems like he would perform as expected. In four ML seasons, Chen was a solid mid-rotation starter for the Baltimore Orioles. He compiled 9.5 fWAR in four seasons, averaging around 2.4 per season. Steamer projects him for a 2.6 fWAR season in 2016, which sounds about right.

In those four seasons, Chen posted all-around consistent peripherals: strikeout rate around 7.00 K/9, walk rate around 2.00 BB/9 and allowing dingers once in awhile (1.24 HR/9 in ML career). He’s also not a ground ball pitcher at all with a 38.5% GB rate. Barring a sudden change in approach, his style as a pitcher is pretty apparent: a control guy with an average strikeout ability who gives up fly balls.

There are two things in Chen’s performance that saw improvements though: LOB% and ERA. Well, those two things are very positively correlated so I’ll focus mainly on LOB% here. After posting a 72.8% LOB in 2012, which is right around league average, Chen improved steadily with runners on base with 76.0% in 2013, 77.5% in 2014 and 80.5% in 2015. That’s a pretty nice number for a starting pitcher, especially considering that Chen doesn’t really strike out hitters that much.

Chen had Camden Yards as his home stadium for past four years. That venue, by the way, has a park factor of 117, an extreme hitter’s park. Give the man a cookie. However, if he were to be a Yankee, it wouldn’t get much easier – YSIII has park factor of 119. Chen had a HR/9 rate of 1.32 this past season, which is not great. Unless if he undergoes a major overhaul in his arsenal and approach, don’t expect Chen to lower his home run rate under 1.00/9 anytime soon. I wouldn’t say he’s getting killed by long balls – but he is susceptible to it.

Luke Jackson, a Baltimore-based sportswriter (@luke_jackson10 on Twitter), pointed out few more kinks in Chen’s game. First off, he is not great against right-handed batters. In 2015, he allowed a .217/.250/.326 line against lefties but a .270/.318/.496 line against righties. He allowed 97 home runs total in his ML career and a whopping 79 of them have come off RHB’s. The split is quite stark, if you ask me. Buck Showalter, his manager with the Orioles, started Chen only twice versus the righty-heavy Blue Jays lineup in four years (none this year), which is incredible.

For what it’s worth, Chen also has three ML playoff starts under his belt. He beat the Yankees in 2012 ALDS Game 2 (6.1 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K), got hit around by the Tigers in the 2014 ALDS (3.2 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3 K, 2 HR allowed) and pitched a decent one against the Royals in the 2014 ALCS (5.1 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K).

The Stuff

Here is a YouTube video of all the pitches Chen threw in a July 12 game versus the Washington Nationals.

Here’s his velocity tabular data from Brooks Baseball.

Wei-Yin Chen velocity

The Taiwanese lefty threw 65.6% of all pitches as fastballs and that approach didn’t seem to change at all through out the years. He mixes in a slider, curve and split/change as different weapons to show hitters. None of his pitches are considered elite but they are good enough to get by as a solid starter in ML.

According to Pitch f/x, Chen will use his fastball pretty much everywhere in the zone. He likes to bury his slider and curve towards RHB’s feet and away from LHB’s. As for split/change, he throws it below the strike zone – or keeping it middle-away from RHB’s. Doesn’t seem like he has a trademark killer pitch but he seems to have a strategy with different pitches to face hitters.

Injury History

This is an interesting one. In the states, the only instance of Chen missing an extended amount of time was in 2013 with an oblique injury. Otherwise, he’s been able to start 30+ games each year. However, if you look beyond his MLB career, he’s been through few issues in NPB days.

Chen underwent a Tommy John surgery back in 2006. In 2011, he saw overall decrease in velocity after suffering a lower body injury preseason. Even though he had a solid 2.68 ERA, he struck out considerably much less hitters (94 in 164.2 IP) than before (153 in 188 IP in 2010). Here’s a video of a 2011 start – fastball sits more around the high-80’s, which is several notches below his usual self. Considering that he posted an eye-popping 1.54 ERA in 164 IP in 2009, had he been able to showcase his best stuff in 2011, he might have been targeted with much higher offers than the three-year, $11.3 million contract (with a 2015 team option) that he got from Baltimore.

So his injury history isn’t perfect but he’s shown he’s capability of handling the Major League schedule, which is longer than the NPB one. Well, his record faltered towards the later months of both 2012 and 2013 seasons but he held his own in late stretches in 2014 and 2015. Signing a pitcher for a long-term contract will always come with some kind of injury risk but it’s good to know that Chen does not quite seem Pavano-ian in terms of visiting the disabled list.

(Getty Images)

Contract Projections

It’s been said that Chen wants a five-year deal, possibly six. I don’t know if he will necessarily get that length but given that 1) he’s a Boras client, and 2) there are a lot of teams hungry for solid starting pitching in the market, it’s not really out of the realm of possibility. I think there will be a good amount of teams comfortable giving him four years but the one that will offer him the fifth will come out as the winner. Will New York be that one? I don’t know.

He’s basically the best lefty starter in the market not named David Price. Teams that want a starter but not at Price, Zimmermann, Cueto, etc. prices will most likely consider Chen at some point, so yeah, I feel like him getting a big contract as a result of a bidding war is very much a possibility.

One major knock against pursuing Chen is that he was offered the qualifying offer from the Orioles and, of course, he declined it, meaning that Yankees would have to give up their first rounder if they were to sign him. Here are some projections/predictions of his next contract from different publications:

If you had told me back in the 2011-12 offseason that Chen would someday get a contract five times bigger than what the O’s gave him, I would have been pretty skeptical. But hey, life works that kind of way for some. The Orioles got an absolute steal in Chen and now he’s looking to get paid. A deal around five years, $80 million does not seem like an outrageous outcome at all.

Wrapping Up

I think Chen could be a very serviceable starter for the Yankees. He’s shown consistency as a solid mid-rotation starter in the same division and in a hitter’s park. At least for the first two or three years of the contract, Chen will be a nice guy to go for most days of the week.

He definitely won’t come cheap for Yankees though – in more ways than one. First off, he’ll get a big contract. He will be an attractive commodity to teams that aren’t willing to spend Cueto/Price money on FA starters and, in my opinion, that will certainly create some kind of bidding war, which could drive the price up higher than a lot of us could foresee. Once a team wins the bidding, then they’d have to give up a draft pick. New York could definitely get extra wins by having Chen for next few years versus not having him, but at what cost?

My gut feeling says that Yankees will monitor the market for Chen for awhile and, at some point, the price will go out of their comfort range. We’ll see how it goes though.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jeff Samardzija

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the moment, the Yankees have seven starters for five rotation spots. That includes Ivan Nova and Adam Warren, who are depth arms and not oh gosh we need to clear a rotation spot for him arms. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off offseason elbow surgery, however, and the trio of Nathan Eovaldi (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), and Michael Pineda (forearm) all got hurt in the second half.

Those seven starters come with seven question marks — Nova stunk this year, Warren has never spent a full MLB season as a starter, Luis Severino is a 21-year-old kid — and while adding rotation help may not be a top priority this offseason, it would make sense to at least explore the market. After all, the Yankees had those seven guys this past season and they still needed Chase Whitley, Chris Capuano, and Bryan Mitchell to make some starts.

The 2015-16 free agent class is loaded with starters. You’ve got aces, mid-rotation guys, reclamation projects, you name it. We haven’t seen a free agent class this deep with arms in a very long time. One of those arms is right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is coming off a disappointing season but nevertheless is expected to receive a significant contract this winter. The Yankees have already been connected to him. Let’s dive in.

Recent Performance

Like I said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Samardzija had a disappointing 2015 season with the White Sox. The idea players cost themselves money with poor performance gets thrown around too much — no, those two bad weeks in September won’t kill a guy’s free agent value — but Samardzija definitely did. He was potentially looking at $100M+ this offseason. Anyway, here are his last three years.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RH wOBA LH wOBA
2013 213.2 4.34 3.77 23.4% 8.5% 48.2% 13.3% .309 .342
2014 219.2 2.99 3.20 23.0% 4.9% 50.2% 10.6% .279 .292
2015 214.0 4.96 4.23 17.9% 5.4% 39.0% 10.8% .302 .357
2013-15 647.1 4.09 3.73 21.4% 6.3% 45.6% 11.5% .297 .332

Okay, so which one is the real Samardzija? Is it the guy who was okay at best in 2013, the guy who was an ace in 2014, or the guy who led the league earned runs and total bases allowed in 2015? For some reason I feel like the answer is none of the above. The truth is probably somewhere between 2014 and 2015, which is an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes.

I think it’s important to note the White Sox had one of the worst defenses in baseball this season, which surely contributed to Samardzija’s trouble preventing runs. They turned relatively few balls in play into outs behind him. The bad defense doesn’t explain a five percentage point drop in strikeout rate or the ten (!) percentage point drop in ground ball rate*, however.

* Samardzija went from 0.82 HR/9 last year to 1.22 HR/9 this year, and that’s all due to the sudden lack of ground balls. His HR/FB% rate was basically identical those two years.

Let’s take a deeper look at at the type of contact Samardzija has given up the last few seasons and see what’s going on there.

GB% FB% LD% IFFB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2013 48.2% 31.4% 20.4% 10.1% 36.5% 23.0% 17.8% 28.2%
2014 50.2% 30.5% 19.3% 10.6% 38.0% 24.4% 19.9% 24.7%
2015 39.0% 39.8% 21.2% 10.1% 40.2% 26.4% 18.7% 26.7%
2013-15 45.6% 34.1% 20.3% 10.2% 38.3% 24.7% 18.8% 26.5%
MLB AVG 45.3% 33.8% 20.9% 9.5% 39.1% 25.7% 18.6% 28.6%

Samardzija’s hard and soft contact rates have been right in line with the league average the last few years. Same goes for pull and opposite field rates. If there was a lot of hard contact or a spike in pull rate — suggesting hitters were getting around quicker on his stuff — it would be a significant red flag.

Fly balls are not necessarily a bad thing — most fly balls are catchable, routine plays — and Samardzija has gotten a bit more infield pop-ups than the league average pitcher the last three years. Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts. They’re as close to a sure out as there is in this game. Still, Samardzija’s ground ball rate fell and his fly ball rate climbed big time in 2015, and that’s something we can’t ignore.

Something caused those changes in Samardzija’s fly ball and ground ball rates this year. They’re just the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Samardzija’s stuff and pitch mix may have the answers, or at least point us in the right direction.

The Stuff

At this point of his career Samardzija is a true five-pitch pitcher. He stopped toying around with a changeup and a curveball a few years ago, instead settling on a splitter and slider as his go-to secondary pitches. Three different fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, cutter — round out his repertoire. Here’s a real quick average velocity breakdown from Brooks Baseball:

JeffSamardzijaVelocity1

That’s a pretty significant drop in four-seamer velocity, right? Samardzija lost 1.3 mph off his heater last season. The velocity drop on his other pitches — sinker (.52 mph), slider (.97 mph), cutter (.64 mph), splitter (.90 mph) — is not as severe but is still notable. Samardzija was still one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball last season, that’s important to remember, but there was enough of a velocity drop across to board to make you notice.

Samardzija’s pitch selection the last three years is pretty interesting. Most guys who throw five pitches really throw like three pitches and occasionally flash the other two. That’s not the case with Samardzija. He throws all five regularly. Here’s the data, again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija pitch selection

Samardzija threw all of his pitches at least 12.7% of the time last year and didn’t throw one more than 24.7% of the time. He doesn’t throw the splitter to righties and he doesn’t throw the slider to lefties, which makes sense, but otherwise Samardzija uses everything. This isn’t Tanaka throwing that slow curveball four or five times a game, for example.

I am not at all surprised to see Samardzija threw his cutter significantly more often last season. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is renowned for teaching the cutter and getting his pitchers to emphasis it. Cooper taught Jose Quintana and Gavin Floyd a cutter in recent years and turned their careers around. Samardzija always threw a cutter, but he nearly doubled his usage of the pitch this season from just two years ago.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. The additional cutters — and additional sliders, I’m guessing some of those sliders were cutters that maybe broke more than usual and wound up being classified as sliders — came at the expense of sinkers more than anything, and hey, that might explain the sudden drop in Samardzija’s ground ball rate. Then again, his grounder rate was down across the board, on all his pitches. Again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija ground ball rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (37.9%), sinker (49.5%), slider (43.9%), cutter (43.0%), splitter (47.8%).

So much for the idea that fewer sinkers led to fewer grounders. Well, no, that is true to a certain extent for Samardzija, but the ground ball inducing ability took a step back with all five of his pitches last season. That is tied to the velocity loss at least somewhat. How much, exactly? I don’t think we can say.

Cutters have a reputation for sapping arm strength — Eno Sarris wrote a great piece about this back in April — and I guess there’s something to the idea of scaling back on Samardzija’s cutter usage going forward. That could lead to increased effectiveness overall and maybe a slight bump in velocity, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.

For the sake of completeness, let’s look at the swing-and-miss rates of Samardzija’s various pitches, once again with the help of Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija whiff rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (6.9%), sinker (5.4%), slider (15.2%), cutter (9.7%), splitter (14.9%).

Samardzija’s four-seamer is a great swing-and-miss pitch. It was this past season even with that lost velocity. There’s something to be said for having the ability to throw a fastball by a hitter. It’s a great skill to have. Samardzija also gets a better than average whiff rate on his sinker and cutter, but the slider and splitter? Comfortably below average.

Lefties hit Samardzija hard this past season and the swing-and-miss rate on his splitter dropped off big time. I’m guessing those two things are related. Is it possible the reduced effectiveness of the split-finger fastball is tied to the increased cutter usage? Sure. It takes (slightly) different mechanics to throw different pitches, and suddenly throwing more cutters than ever could have affected his other pitches.

One thing we have to keep in mind: Samardzija still has pretty nasty stuff. He still throws very hard despite the velocity loss, he uses five pitches regularly, and he misses bats with his fastball. This isn’t a guy going out there with Freddy Garcia stuff.

Injury History

Samardzija has never been hurt in his pro career. Not even in the minors. No arm injuries, no pulled hamstrings, no stubbed toes, nothing. He’s a big — listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 lbs. — strong guy and an incredible athlete, all of which points to durability. Any pitcher can get hurt at any time, but there’s nothing in Samardzija’s history that will make you cringe.

Furthermore, Samardzija turns 31 in January but he has significantly fewer innings on his arm than the other top free agent starters. He split his time between football and baseball in college, and he spent the 2008-11 seasons working mostly in relief with the Cubs. Buster Only (subs. req’d) had a great little nugget in yesterday’s blog post.

Among the upper-tier starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent class, Samardzija has easily thrown the fewest pitches in the majors, partly because he served as a reliever his first four years with the Cubs. Here’s where he compares with other top free-agent starters in total MLB pitches during the regular season:

Zack Greinke: 33,189 pitches
Johnny Cueto: 22,786
David Price: 22,724
Jordan Zimmermann: 16,793
Jeff Samardzija: 15,906

Greinke is the oldest of the group by several years, hence that big workload. Price and Cueto have been workhorses throughout their careers, so it makes sense they’re essentially tied for second. Zimmerman has thrown more pitches than Samardzija despite missing a season due to Tommy John surgery.

All pitchers have wear and tear on their arms by time they reach their 30th birthday and Samardzija is no exception, but his arm has not endured the workload of other top free agent starters because he split his time between two sports as an amateur and spent significant time as a reliever after first reaching the show. That may mean he’ll hold his stuff into his mid-30s, a little longer than you’d normally expect.

Loose Yankees Ties

Two of the reasons the Yankees have been connected to Samardzija are pitching coach Larry Rothschild and special advisor Jim Hendry. Rothschild was Samardzija’s first pitching coach with the Cubs and Hendry originally drafted, signed, and developed Samardzija when he was Cubs GM. So the Yankees have some firsthand knowledge of him.

That said, Rothschild only spent parts of three seasons with Samardzija, and he wasn’t moved into the rotation until two years after Rothschild left the Cubs. Hendry was fired as Cubs GM the year before Samardzija moved into the rotation. The relationships might not be as close as you’d expect. If nothing else, Rothschild and Hendry should be able to give the Yankees some knowledge about Samardzija as a person. His work ethic, that sort of stuff.

Contract Projections

The White Sox made Samardzija the qualifying offer last week and I expect him to reject it before Friday’s deadline, even after his down year. Samardzija should have no trouble beating that $15.8M guarantee on the open market. I know the pitching class is deep and there are plenty of alternatives, but basically every team besides the Mets is looking for rotation help this winter. The demand is still greater than the supply. Samardzija will get his.

Anyway, in addition to a hefty contract, whoever signs Samardzija will have to forfeit their highest unprotected draft pick thanks to the qualifying offer. For the Yankees, that is their first rounder, tentatively scheduled to be No. 22 overall. Here are some contract projections for Samardzija:

Based on those three, Samardzija is expected to receive roughly $17M a year for four or five years. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett contract (five years, $82.5M), which is fitting because Samardzija and Burnett can both tantalize you with their stuff and frustrate you with their results.

Remember though, it has been seven years since Burnett sign his contract with the Yankees. The market has changed a lot since then. Paying a starter $17M a year now is not the same as doing it back then. Back in 2009 only four pitchers had contracts with an average annual value of $16M+. This past season 18 pitchers had a contract worth that much annually. So yeah.

Wrapping Up

Samardzija’s best attribute is his durability. He’s never been hurt, he’s logged 210+ innings in each of the last three years, his arm is fresh, and he consistently pitches deep into games. Samardzija completed seven innings in 19 of his 32 starts this past season. The Yankees as a team had their starter complete seven innings only 35 times in 2015.

Also, Samardzija’s stuff took a slight step back this past season, though it could be tied to his increased cutter usage. He still flashes brilliance and dominates on occasion. Samardzija had four starts with a 75+ Game Score this season. The Yankees as a team had ten. Lots of innings and occasional brilliance doesn’t equal an ace, but I don’t think anyone is looking at Samardzija as an ace anyway. Four or five years and $17M per year isn’t ace money anymore.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At this point I think Samardzija is what he is. Signing him and expecting his game to take a significant step forward probably isn’t realistic. He might — I think he will, not might — be better than he was this year simply because he figures to have a more competent defense behind him going forward, but I wouldn’t count on ever seeing the 2014 Samardzija again either. He’s talented and durable and the results leave you wanting more.

The Yankees love big power pitchers who don’t walk anyone — I think Samardzija’s improved walk rate the last two years is the result of an athletic pitcher getting locked into his mechanics — and Samardzija fits the bill. He’s also played for a team in a big market with intense media in the Cubs — shouldn’t his Notre Dame football experience count too? — and has an old school give me the damn ball bulldog mentality.

“Back in the day, the game was left in the starter’s hands,” said Samardzija to David Laurila in July 2014. “If the starter pitched well, he was given his 120 pitches. The game was decided by the starting pitchers. It’s different now and I think that’s unfortunate. When you get into tough situations, regardless of your pitch count, a lot of times a reliever is brought in. I understand why – it’s to preserve the game — but you have to keep your relievers’ arms fresh too. I like the idea of the starters deciding what happens in the game.”

I think the Yankees can use rotation help, and I’m sure if you gave the front office a truth serum, they’d say they want to find a way to upgrade the starting staff as well. If nothing else, it would be nice to have one guy you could count on to chew innings every fifth day, right? Asking the bullpen to get 10-12 outs a night is no way to go through a season (again). Samardzija can give you those innings.

Sinking four or five years and $17M annually into Samardzija to be an innings dude who is ideally your second or third best starter might be tough to swallow, but I think it is fair market value. If the Yankees intend to avoid huge money free agent contracts — like the one David Price will get, for example — Samardzija might just be their best option in free agency.