Setup man Shawn Kelley is day-to-day with a back issue, Joe Girardi announced. An MRI came back clean. He’s never had any back problems in the past, only a long history of elbow injuries. Kelley threw 34 stressful pitches on Monday and another eleven on Tuesday, though who knows if that contributed to his balky back. Adam Warren pitched the eighth inning on Friday and he’ll take over as setup man for the time being, just as he did when David Robertson was on the DL a few weeks ago.
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
* * *
Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees and Shawn Kelley have agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.7625M, avoiding arbitration. He gets another $25k if he appears in 55 games. Kelley was projected for $1.5M by Matt Swartz. The 29-year-old had a 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) with a 11.98 K/9 (31.3 K%) in 53.1 innings last season.
The Yankees still have three remaining unsigned arbitration-eligible players (projected salaries in parentheses): David Robertson ($5.5M), Brett Gardner ($4M), and Ivan Nova ($2.8M). They avoided arbitration with Frankie Cervelli yesterday ($700k). Today is the deadline to file salary figures.
As expected, the Yankees’ five eligible players all filed for salary arbitration prior to today’s deadline. Those five players, with their projected 2014 salaries courtesy of Matt Swartz, are David Robertson ($5.5M), Brett Gardner ($4M), Ivan Nova ($2.8M), Shawn Kelley ($1.5M), and Frankie Cervelli ($1M). The players’ union expects Gardner’s salary to be “considerably higher” than projected.
Filing for arbitration is just a procedural move. Had these guys not filed today, the Yankees would have been able to pay them whatever they wanted this coming season, as long as it was at least 80% of last year’s salary. The two sides have to exchange figures by Friday, meaning the team says what they want to pay while the player says what he wants. Arbitration hearings will be held next month and the Yankees have not been to one since beating Chien-Ming Wang prior to the 2008 season. The two sides can work out a contract of any size right up to the hearing.
As we spend far too much time trying to figure out how the Yankees will rebuild themselves into a contender while staying under the $189M luxury tax threshold next season, there has always been one great big unknown throwing a wrench into things: arbitration salaries. These go to players with more than three years but fewer than six years of service time; the guys who have been in the league long enough to earn a decent salary but not long enough to qualify for free agency.
Arbitration salaries are very tough to pin down (or estimate, for that matter) but can be substantial in some cases, especially as the player moves closer to free agency. Thankfully, Matt Swartz developed an insanely accurate model — it’s been within 5% or so overall — for projecting arbitration salaries, and the information has been available at MLBTR these last three years. Projections for the Yankees’ seven arbitration-eligible players were released over the weekend:
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)
- David Robertson, RP (5.070):
$5.07MM$5.5MM projected salary
- Brett Gardner, OF (5.072): $4MM
- Ivan Nova, SP (3.022): $2.8MM
- Shawn Kelley, RP (4.128): $1.5MM
- Jayson Nix, IF (4.127): $1.4MM
- Francisco Cervelli, C (3.102): $1MM
- Chris Stewart, C (3.091): $1MM
Update: Here are the updated projections. Only Robertson’s changed.
Nova ($2.22M raise), Robertson ($2.4M), and Gardner ($1.15M) are all projected to receive healthy raises from last season. The other four guys are projected to receive $640k salary increases or less. Nova is arbitration-eligible for the very first time, meaning he’s coming off what amounts to a league minimum salary in 2013. I have to think that’s a pretty great moment for a young-ish player — that first year of arbitration, when your annual salary goes from mid-six-figures to several million bucks.
Anyway, at the projected salaries, I think both Nix and Stewart are obvious non-tender candidates, meaning the Yankees should cut them loose and allow them to become free agents rather than pay that salary. Nix is a perfectly fine utility infielder who played way too much this past season, when he earned $900k. The projected $1.4M is a real stretch for me. If he’s willing to re-sign with the team for $1M or so, great. If not, move on. There are better ways to spend $1.4M, especially considering the team’s self-imposed budget constraints. Same goes for Stewart. No way should the Yankees pay him a seven-figure salary in 2014. That’s madness.
So, assuming the Yankees non-tender Nix and Stewart but keep everyone else, their arbitration class projects to cost $14.8M next season. They currently have six players under contract with a combined $84.9M “tax hit” for 2014 and that includes Alex Rodriguez, who may or may not be suspended. It doesn’t include Derek Jeter, who figures to pick up his player option. So, between the guys under contract and the arbitration-eligible players, the Yankees have eleven players slated to earn $99.7M in 2014, pending decisions by Jeter and the arbitrator overseeing A-Rod’s appeal.
That leaves the team with roughly $77.3M to spend on the 29 remaining 40-man roster spots (plus leaving space for midseason additions) when you factor in ~$12M or so for player benefits, which count against the tax. If A-Rod is suspended for the entire season, it’ll be $104.8M for 30 remaining roster spots. That sounds like a lot, but remember, Jeter and the inevitable Robinson Cano contract will soak up about $35M of that leftover money all by themselves. Without A-Rod but with Cano and Jeter, it’s more like $70M for 28 roster spots plus midseason additions. Doable, certainly, but that $300M spending spree might be more myth that reality.
The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a shrewd bullpen pickup.
Over the last few years, the Yankees have shown a knack for plucking useful relievers off the scrap heap. Guys like Brian Bruney, Cory Wade, Clay Rapada, Luis Ayala, Edwar Ramirez, and Cody Eppley have contributed to the team’s bullpen in recent years. They usually don’t stick around that long and their tenures tend to end uglily, but being able to consistently grab a guy off waivers or as a minor league free agent and squeeze 50 good innings out of him is a nice skill to have.
The Yankees landed this summer’s bargain bullpen pickup in a mid-February trade, on the very day pitchers and catchers officially reported for duty in Tampa. They shipped minor league outfielder Abe Almonte to the Mariners for right-hander Shawn Kelley, who Seattle had designated for assignment after signing Joe Saunders a week earlier. Given his resume — 3.52 ERA (4.12 FIP) with an 8.58 K/9 (22.6 K% and 2.74 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) in 128 career big league innings — it was unlikely the 29-year-old Kelley would have made it to the Yankees on waivers, hence the trade.
Now, believe it or not, New York actually had a surplus of relievers in camp. David Robertson and Boone Logan were returning, Mariano Rivera was back after his knee injury, and there were a bunch of people (myself included) who expected Joba Chamberlain to be a solid option for the middle innings as he got further away from elbow reconstruction. Both Rapada and Eppley were still around, as where David Phelps and Adam Warren. David Aardsma was with the team as well. Kelley looked like a guy who would be stashed in Triple-A Scranton — had a minor league option remaining — and await the inevitable call-up.
Instead, Kelley grabbed a bullpen spot and made the Opening Day roster because, as it tends to do, the pitching depth disappeared in a hurry. Rapada hurt his shoulder in camp and was eventually released, plus Phelps had to start the year in the rotation because Phil Hughes hurt his back and opened the year on the DL. That made Warren the long man by default. Kelley won the last bullpen spot over Aardsma because he was physically able to throw two innings at a time — Aardsma was a pure one-inning guy after missing what amounts to two full years following hip and Tommy John surgery. The Yankees wanted the flexibility.
Early in the season, it looked like the team kept the wrong guy. Kelley was a low-leverage reliever who had yet to gain Joe Girardi’s trust, which is why only two of his eight April appearances came with the score separated by fewer than three runs. One of those two was in extra innings of a tie game, a last reliever standing kind of thing. Kelley was awful in the season’s first month, allowing nine runs on 12 hits (four homers!) and four walks in 10.1 innings (7.84 ERA and 6.34 FIP). Needless to say, he did not gain Girardi’s trust in April.
Thanks to a few strong outings in early-May and Joba’s oblique injury, Kelley slowly began to climb the bullpen pecking order. It helped that he suddenly started striking pretty much everyone out too. By relying on his sharp low-80s slider, Kelley allowed one run on three hits and a walk while striking out 18 of 28 batters faced (!) during a six-appearance, eight-inning stretch in the middle of May. Striking out 18 of 28 batters faced across however many appearances is off the charts good. Like, literally off the chart.
All of those strikeouts and a strong month of May landed Kelley regular seventh inning work — the setup man for the setup man, basically — even after Chamberlain returned from the DL. From May 1st through August 31st, a span of 105 team games, Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) with 51 strikeouts (11.57 K/9 and 31.5 K%) while stranding 32 of 34 (!) inherited runners (94%) in 39.2 innings. That inherited runner strand rate is ridiculous. Kelley held batters to a .194/.278/.285 batting line during that stretch, more or less what David Adams hit for the big league team in 2013 (.193/.252/.286).
Like most of the pitching staff, Kelley fell apart in September (six runs in 3.1 innings), in part because of a bout with triceps inflammation. He is a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor, so arm trouble wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world. The poor final month left Kelley with an ordinary 4.39 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 53.1 innings, numbers that sell short how effective and important he was for much of the summer. An ugly April and an ugly September mask four months of excellence.
Kelley ended the year with an 11.98 K/9 (31.3 K%) and 3.88 BB/9 (10.1 BB%), so plenty of whiffs but more walks than you’d like to see. Not a back-breaking amount though. He is homer prone — 1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB this year, right in line with his career 1.34 HR/9 and 10.5% HR/FB — and that’s what keeps him from being a true eighth or ninth inning option going forward in my opinion. Kelley was a big part of Girardi’s bullpen for a big chunk of the summer and the Yankees got him on the cheap. Could ask for more from a guy who was cut from another team’s roster right as Spring Training opened.
Well, this is awkward. The Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention last night but there are still four days and four games left in the regular season. They’ve broken up with the postseason, but they’re stuck living with each other until the lease runs out, or something. That was a bad analogy.
Anyway, these next four days are meaningless — unless you’re overly concerned about moving up or down one draft slot — but they do have some value to the Yankees. They have a chance to attend to some serious and not-so-serious business. Here are the three most important items on the agenda:
Start serious contract talks with Robinson Cano
Cano’s impending free agency is, by far, the biggest issue facing the Yankees these next few weeks. The five-day exclusive negotiating period expires five days after the end of the World Series, so the team has about a month to hammer out a deal and keep him off the open market. Obviously doing that would be preferable. The last thing the Yankees want is a bidding war.
“If we don’t make it to the playoffs, I want to take my time, go on vacation and relax. Then I want to sit down with my family and decide what we gonna do,” said Cano to Wally Matthews yesterday. “I haven’t decided anything yet, but don’t get me wrong. I love this team, you know? … I understand it’s a business. They have to decide what is the best for them, and I have to decide what is best for me and my family. I’m just waiting for the day.”
The Yankees made Cano a “significant offer” during Spring Training — before he changed agents — and just this morning we heard the team offered seven years and $161M. (Let’s ignore Robbie’s demand of $305M for the moment, that’s just AgentSpeak.) Now that they’ve been eliminated, the team needs to sit down with Cano’s camp and get serious about a new contract. The idea of talks being a “distraction” during the season is a non-issue now — no one would care if he went 0-for-20 in the final four games. It changes nothing other than his stat line*. This is the single most important piece of offseason business. Get it done as soon as possible.
* Just for the record, an 0-for-20 would drop Cano from .315/.384/.519 to .305/.374/.503 on the year. No one would notice the difference.
Shut down David Robertson, David Phelps, and Shawn Kelley (and Boone Logan)
A bunch of the team’s relievers have been banged up of late, and since these last four games are meaningless, the Yankees should just shut them all down and look toward next season. Robertson (shoulder), Phelps (forearm), and Kelley (triceps) have all missed time with arm problems in recent weeks — and not coincidentally, they’ve kinda stunk — so just shut them down and focus on getting them healthy for their offseason workouts and whatnot. All three figure to be not just part of the pitching staff next season and beyond, but rather important pieces of the pitching staff. No need to push it.
As for Logan, he needs offseason surgery to clean a bone spur out of his elbow after missing a few weeks with soreness. He’s available to pitch now but there’s no reason to run him out there. Logan will be a free agent this winter and there’s no real indication the Yankees will try to re-sign him, so this is more of a “thanks for the last four years, we’re not going to risk further injury by running you out there on the verge of free agency” thing rather than a “get healthy, we need you next year” thing. Just do the guy a solid.
Let Mariano Rivera play center field
This has gotta happen. Tonight too, not in Houston. Rivera has been shagging fly balls before batting practice for over two decades now for this very situation. I say regardless of the actual score, let him pitch the eighth inning and then play the ninth in center field in tonight’s series finale against the Rays. The other way around would be ideal since the ninth inning is Mo’s inning, but I’m not sure he could play the field in the eighth and warm up for the ninth. I don’t think warming up in the bullpen before the eighth and “sitting” for an inning would work either.
Following last night’s loss, Joe Girardi said he will continue to play his regulars out of respect for the game, which makes me think he won’t play Rivera in center field tonight since Tampa is still fighting for a playoff spot (and seeding). This weekend against the Astros will be a different matter. There’s literally nothing on the line other than the Yankees’ draft slot — the Astros have already clinched the first overall pick for the third straight years — which means Mo might have to wait for the weekend. That would be really unfortunate. If he does play an inning in center, it should be in front of the hometown crowd. Let’s hope for a huge lead (or a huge deficit, who really cares at this point) in the late innings so Rivera could play some outfield in his final game in the Bronx. It would make this whole mess of a season totally worth it.