2017 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Monday

2017-winter-meetingsSo this offseason went from boring to crazy in a hurry, huh? After weeks of inactivity, Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels and the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton (!!!) in the span of 48 hours. Just like that, the two most intriguing storylines of the offseason were resolved. Ohtani is an Angel and Stanton will be mashing dingers in the Bronx.

That doesn’t mean the Winter Meetings will be boring this week, of course. There are still plenty of quality free agents on the board — nearly every top free agent remains unsigned — plus surprise trade candidates always emerge. The Stanton trade is all but certain to be the Yankees’ biggest move of the offseason. They do still need some pitching though, and possibly a second baseman.

“I do think that the future is bright. We’ve got a lot of good stuff that is already in place, and we’ve got more good stuff coming. I thought everybody got a chance to see that on the baseball stage this year play out. It has a chance to play out that way even further in the future. I don’t think there is a lot for us to have to do. I think we’re going to be patient, and we’re going to be diligent,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch, barely three days before the Stanton trade.

Stanton will be introduced at a 2pm ET press conference this afternoon, which I assume will be on MLB Network and MLB.com. Now that the Winter Meetings are underway, we’re going to keep track of all the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here. I honestly don’t know what to expect in the wake of the Stanton trade. The Yankees could very easily sit back and let the market come to them now. We’ll see. Make sure you check back often for updates throughout the day. All timestamps are ET.

  • 2:37pm: Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees talked to the Marlins about Stanton at the GM Meetings a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t until they lost out on Shohei Ohtani that they pursued him seriously. [Bryan Hoch]
  • 2:01pm: The Yankees are interested in Gerrit Cole, their 2008 first round pick. The “initial impression” is the Pirates are not trading him, however. [Heyman]
  • 10:57am: The Stanton trade is official. The Yankees made the announcement this morning. Here’s the press release. The trade is as reported: Stanton and cash for Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzman, and Jose Devers.
  • 10:30am: The Angels and CC Sabathia have had contract talks. Sabathia said many times he wants to remain with the Yankees, so maybe he’s using the Angels for leverage? [George King]
  • 10:30am: The Yankees are continuing to weigh Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley trade options. Ellsbury has a no-trade clause and apparently wants to stay in New York. The Yankees are said to be willing to eat half the $68M left on his contract to facilitate a deal. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:30am: The Marlins initially asked for Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, or Estevan Florial in Stanton trade talks. They settled for Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers. [Heyman]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)

Now that Shohei Ohtani is no longer an option, the Yankees are circling back to CC Sabathia

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees found out they will not land Japanese ace-slash-slugger Shohei Ohtani last weekend. He prefers the West Coast, and informed the Yankees he will not sign with them. Bummer. Ohtani is a lot of fun. He also has a chance to be insanely good. He’d have fit into the youth movement nicely. Alas.

With Ohtani out of the picture, the Yankees have circled back and reached out to CC Sabathia‘s people about a reunion, reports Jon Heyman. I thought the Yankees would’ve been smart to bring Sabathia back even if they had landed Ohtani, but without him, getting another starter is a must, and Sabathia is an obvious target.

“We know CC and he’s a tremendous asset for us,” said Brian Cashman to George King. “We know everything about him, what a competitor he is and that he can perform on the biggest stage. Does that guarantee that everything is going well in this process? No. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Typical Cashman, downplaying the odds. Sabathia has been very open about wanting to stay with the Yankees — “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” he said after ALCS Game Seven — and I have no reason to doubt him. A few things about this.

1. Sabathia is still effective, which is pretty important. It’s kinda hard to believe we’re talking about re-signing Sabathia for 2018 given how poorly he pitched from 2013-15. He had a 4.81 ERA (4.40 FIP) in 424.1 innings those years, and has a 3.81 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 328.1 innings in two years since. Pretty amazing late career turnaround.

That turnaround has been fueled by Sabathia’s relatively new cutter, which has turned him into one of the best soft contact pitchers in baseball. Soft contact can turn into hard contact real quick as a pitcher ages, that’s the risk here, but Sabathia has succeeded with this new approach for two years now. It’s not a fluke. No, he doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore, but there’s something to be said for his knowing you’ll get five good innings each time out.

2. The price may be too good to pass up. Sabathia turned 37 in July, and over the last five years only two starting pitchers age 37 or older signed a multi-year contract: John Lackey and Bartolo Colon. The Cubs gave Lackey two years and $32M two offseasons ago, and the Mets gave Colon two years and $20M four years ago. Both of them were coming off much better years than Sabathia, however.

Contract Year IP ERA ERA+ FIP fWAR bWAR
Colon 2013 OAK 190.1 2.65 147 3.23 +3.8 +5.0
Lackey 2015 STL 218 2.77 142 3.57 +3.6 +5.7
Sabathia 2017 NYY 148.2 3.67 122 4.49 +1.9 +2.8

Perhaps Sabathia can lean on his track record and inflation to demand two years from the Yankees, but yeah, the list of pitchers his age getting multi-year contracts is very short. Colon and Lackey needed outrageously good seasons — their best seasons in several years, in fact — to get their contracts.

The market indicates Sabathia is looking at one year and $12M or so, which is in line with what Colon and R.A. Dickey received last year. Maybe Sabathia succeeds and gets two years. It could happen. Point is, Sabathia is going to come affordably and on a short-term deal. That’s good for the luxury tax plan and good for flexibility moving forward.

3. You know what you’re getting off the field. Any time you sign a free agent or trade for a new player, how he’ll fit into the clubhouse is always a bit of an unknown. Teams do plenty of homework — players (and coaches) change teams so often these days that chances are someone on the roster has played with the guy before — but in the end, you just don’t know how someone will react to a new environment until he gets there. That’s especially true in New York.

With Sabathia, there are no such concerns because he’s been here for so long already. He’s beloved in the clubhouse — if Brett Gardner is the unofficial captain of the position players, Sabathia has been the unofficial captain of the pitching staff all these years — and has taken on a leadership role, and he knows all about playing in Yankee Stadium and in New York in general. Those are adjustments he won’t have to make. Plug him into the roster and go.

4. There are reasons not to sign Sabathia. As much as I love Sabathia — I think everyone loves Sabathia, right? he’s the man — we have to acknowledge the reasons not to re-sign him. One, he’s 37 and will turn 38 in July. Sabathia is firmly in the “this can fall apart in a hurry” age range. In the past five seasons, only eight different pitchers age 37 or older finished a season at +1 WAR. Recent history is not really on Sabathia’s side.

Secondly, Sabathia’s right knee is a wreck. It’s bone-on-bone at this point, hence the regular lubrication injections, and Sabathia has admitted he’ll likely need a knee replacement once his career is over. Remember when he left that game in Toronto and everyone thought his career is over? It wasn’t, thankfully, but that’s pretty much the risk you’re running here. The knee could give out at any moment. Between his age and the knee, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Sabathia as a free agent target at all had he not spent the last nine years with the Yankees.

* * *

Coming into the offseason I thought it was inevitable the Yankees would re-sign Sabathia, with or without Ohtani. It makes too much sense. He’s not going to cost a ton, you know what you’re getting on and off the field, and there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth. Now that Ohtani has spurned the Yankees, adding another pitcher is a must, and in a weak free agent class, bringing Sabathia back on a short-term deal sure seems like an obvious move right now. The Yankees have been contact with Sabathia’s camp lately and I get the sense something could happen soon.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Back-Up Catchers

(Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The average major league catcher slashed .245/.315/.406 in 2017, good for an 89 wRC+ – and the average back-up catcher was much, much worse than that. And that puts Austin Romine‘s offense in an incredibly unflattering light, as he was the worst hitter among the 49 backstops that amassed 200 PA last season. The baseline is incredibly low, and he fell about as far beneath it as is possible (to be fair, he ranked 62nd among the 67 catchers that had at least 100 PA). And his defense doesn’t really make up for it, either.

As a result of this, the Yankees might just be in the market for a better back-up option behind the dish. Whether or not one is available on the free agent market is an intriguing question; particularly when Mike already wrote about Alex Avila. Given that he stands to make a fair bit of money, though, he does not seem like a terribly likely candidate to accept a back-up role. That leaves us with the following free agent catchers, listed along with their 2017 production (framing and blocking runs courtesy of Baseball Prospectus):

catchers

The pickings are rather slim, as one might expect given the value of a passable catcher. Only a few of these guys grade out as strong defenders across the board (the league-average CS% is around 27%), and Chris Iannetta was the only one to be an asset with the bat (though, Rene Rivera was above-average for the position). I’ll dig into each of the names a bit:

A.J. Ellis

Okay, to clarify, Ellis isn’t terribly interesting. However, he does seem like the exact sort of player that the Yankees would value, given his reputation as a clubhouse leader (lest we forget Clayton Kershaw’s reaction when he was dealt) and experience in big markets. Ellis is also 36, hasn’t hit well since 2015, and has never graded out well as a framer or a blocker. Hard pass.

Nick Hundley

Hundley has been an average-ish hitting catcher throughout his career, with a career slash line of .249/.300/.406 (89 wRC+). He’s also a subpar pitch-framer, grading out as well below-average in three of the last four years, and a middling blocker and thrower. He might be an upgrade over Romine with the bat, but defensively he’s not up to snuff – and I think the team would want a large upgrade in one aspect to move on from the status quo.

Chris Iannetta

Iannetta checks a great many boxes for the Yankees. He walks (career 13.6% walk rate) and hits for power (.176 ISO), and he was a strong pitch framer in 2017, with slightly below-average marks in blocking and the throwing game. His offense has been up and down throughout his career, but the patience and power are always there; but defense is another matter entirely. Consider his framing over the last three years, as per BP and StatCorner:

  • 2015: +13.1, +14.4
  • 2016: -13.8, -12.3
  • 2017: +6.1, +0.0

Publicly available catcher metrics are still a work in progress, but it’s strange to see a catcher bounce from elite to awful to average/above-average in a span of three years. That’s especially true with Iannetta, who vacillated between average and awful prior to 2015. If he is as good as last year’s numbers indicate on defense, he’s a massive upgrade over Romine; if he’s as bad as 2016, he’s not. I have faith in his bat, though.

Jose Lobaton

If you think last year’s framing numbers were an aberration, Lobaton is essentially a slightly better version of Romine, having been worth between 2.3 and 4.5 framing runs in his other major league seasons. Otherwise, he’s one of the few catchers that are worse.

Jonathan Lucroy

I have to imagine that Lucroy will get a starting gig somewhere, as he’s only a season removed from being a very good hitter (123 wRC+ in 544 PA in 2016) and a solid defender (4.0 framing runs, 1.8 blocking runs, 39% CS%). He graded out as absolutely horrendous on defense last year, though – and BP was far more generous than StatCorner, which had him at -29.2 framing runs. I would be happy to see the Yankees take a flier on Lucroy, given his high marks in the past (and his ability to play some first base) – but there are enough catching gigs around the league for him to wait for a better opportunity.

Miguel Montero

Montero appears to be in the decline phase of his career, at least as a hitter. 2017 was the worst offensive season of his career, and that came on the heels of another subpar season (82 wRC+). He also ruffled feathers this past summer, when he criticized Jake Arrieta (and the Cubs pitching staff as a whole) for slow delivery times. That earned him a DFA, and a trade to the Blue Jays, and makes one wonder if there were other behind the scenes issues. That factor may well make Montero a non-option for the Yankees; though, his left-handed pop and strong framing and blocking could mitigate that concern.

Rene Rivera

Mike summed up the appeal of Rivera in his off-season plan. He’s a good to great defender with a reputation for working well with pitchers, and he has a bit of pop in his bat, too. In short, he’s what the Yankees hope(d) Romine could become.

Carlos Ruiz

Scroll up and read my take on A.J. Ellis (which is kind of funny, as they were dealt for each other), and you’ll have a good idea of Ruiz’s potential appeal and clear-cut flaws.

Hector Sanchez

Sanchez is probably the worst all-around catcher on this list, and is included largely as a means to hammer home the scarcity of good options at this position. He doesn’t grade out well at anything, other than running into a few home runs over the last two years (he had a .212 ISO in 189 PA as a San Diego Padre, which is actually fairly impressive).

Geovany Soto

Soto missed the majority of 2017 due to elbow surgery, but is said to be ready to go for 2018. And, depending on his medicals, he could be an interesting target for a team willing to roll the dice. He has always been a good hitter for a catcher, with a career 102 wRC+, and his defense has long graded out as roughly average. The warning signs are obvious, in that he’ll be 35 in January and each of his last two seasons have been cut short by elbow injuries, but he has the makings of a more than competent back-up.

Chris Stewart

Stewart’s defense has slipped noticeably over the last two years, with his framing runs dropping precipitously as per BP and StatCorner. Given his own struggles with the bat, it’s likely that Romine is actually a better option than Stewart right now.

Contract Estimates

Lucroy is the only name of consequence on this list, and neither FanGraphs (3-years, $33 MM) nor MLB Trade Rumors (2-years, $24 MM) sees him as a tremendous bargain. Though, I suppose he would be a bargain at either price if he bounces back.

As for everyone else, I don’t really see an offer for more than a few million per year.

Do They Make Sense for the Yankees?

Lucroy is a pipe dream for the Yankees; even if he signs for peanuts, he’ll seek and find a starting role. With that being said, I think any of the following players – listed in order of preference – would be fine options to replace Austin Romine: Chris Iannetta, Rene Rivera. Iannetta would outhit him by a significant margin (and might be a better defender), and Rivera would just be better across the board.

That’s a short list, but the rest of these catchers all have a serious flaw that is not mitigated by a legitimate strength. I might be interested in some on a minor league deal (Soto comes to mind), but otherwise I’d stay the course with Romine. And I think the Yankees would, too.

Scouting the Trade Market: Scott Alexander

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Now that the Yankees are out of the Shohei Ohtani race, they can move forward with the rest of their offseason plans. The question now is what the heck are they going to do next? They need another starting pitcher, that’s fore sure, and re-signing CC Sabathia seems like the logical outcome there. Otherwise there are no glaring needs. The Yankees are in “improve on what we have” mode. That’s a good place to be.

The Yankees have been looking for a reliable left-handed reliever since last offseason (much longer than that, really), and while it doesn’t seem to be a top priority, it is something they could try to acquire this winter. Any worthwhile free agent will probably cost upwards of $6M a year, if not more, and that may not jive with the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. The Yankees could try to trade for a more luxury tax friendly southpaw instead.

One such potential trade target is Royals lefty Scott Alexander, who Ken Rosenthal hears Kansas City “might consider moving” given the fact they have to rebuild now that nearly their entire core (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, etc.) became free agents this winter. When you’re rebuilding, the last thing you should hold on to is relievers. They’re too volatile. Cash ’em in as trade chips quick. Let’s see whether Alexander makes sense for the Yankees.

Who is Scott Alexander?

Might as well start here, since I suspect more than a few of you reading this have never heard of the guy. Alexander, 28, was a sixth round pick out of Sonoma State in 2010, and he gradually climbed the minor league ladder as a full-time reliever before making his MLB debut as a September call-up in 2015. He went up and down in 2016 before sticking for good this season. His 2017 numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 Opp. wOBA
vs. RHB 50 3.26 19.3% 9.4% 76.2% 0.36 .281
vs. LHB 19 3.16 24.7% 11.1% 67.3% 0.47 .303
Total 69 2.48 3.23 20.9% 9.9% 73.8% 0.39 .293

There have been 5,225 individual pitcher seasons with 50+ innings since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002, and only four of those 5,225 posted a higher ground ball rate than Alexander this year: Zach Britton in 2016 (80.0%), Zach Britton in 2015 (79.1%), Zach Britton in 2014 (73.8%), and Brad Ziegler in 2012 (75.5%). Only ten of those 5,225 pitchers generated a grounder on seven out of every ten balls in play. That’s all.

Clearly, Alexander is an elite ground ball pitcher, or at least he was in his only full MLB season to date. He does walks a few too many and he was better against righties than lefties this year, so he’s not your typical left-on-left matchup guy. He’s a quality reliever who just so happens to throw left-handed. Those guys are great. Carrying a Clay Rapada type, a true matchup lefty who might throw 35 innings in 60 appearances in a season, is tough to do these days with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings. (Alexander threw two full innings 15 times this year, so he’s definitely more than a matchup guy.)

Current Stuff

Given the ground ball rate, it should not surprise you Alexander throws a sinker. In fact, he throws almost nothing but sinkers. Here is his pitch selection in his limited time as a big leaguer:

scott-alexander-pitch-selection

Alexander threw his sinker, a 93.5 mph bowling ball that topped out at 96.8 mph, a whopping 91.0% of the time this year. The other 9% was mostly sliders (6.1%) with a few straight four-seamers (1.1%) and changeups (1.8%) mixed in. Basically, Alexander would pound away with the sinker, and if the hitter was giving him trouble, he’d break out the slider or maybe the changeup to try to put him away. And if he needed to throw a strike in a 3-0 count or whatever, he’d chuck a four-seamer down the middle.

There are no extended videos of Alexander available (can’t believe no one made a highlight video of a random middle reliever), so instead I give you this thoroughly unexciting clip of Alexander using that sinker to get an inning-ending double play, just so you can see what the guy looks like:

It’s an unconventional approach, throwing basically nothing but sinkers, but it can work. I mean, if you’re going throw only one pitch, the sinker is a good one to throw. Alexander’s control isn’t perfect, hence the 9.9% walk rate, but he mitigates the walks by getting so many ground balls, which allows him to avoid homers and generate double plays. (The Royals turned 13 double plays behind Alexander this year, the second most for any reliever behind the 18 the Indians turned behind Bryan Shaw.)

Injury History

Alexander missed a month with a hamstring strain this season, and back in the day he missed the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury that was bad enough to require surgery. That stinks, but the good news is Alexander’s shoulder hasn’t given him any trouble since. And the hamstring injury this year is whatever. Those happen and it’s not like Alexander has a history of them.

It is also worth noting Alexander is a Type 1 diabetic. He was diagnosed in June 2016, so he’s had to adjust his lifestyle and learn how to manage the disease these last 18 months. “I take insulin and watch what I eat. I limit my sugar intake and carbs. It’s been different. Still learning. I’ll see how it goes. Right now, I feel good,” said Alexander to Jeff Flanagan back in Spring Training. This isn’t really an injury, but it is a physical condition that has to be managed.

Contract Status

Alexander has one year and 97 days of service time, so he still has two pre-arbitration years and three arbitration years to go before qualifying for free agency. He won’t even qualify as a Super Two. It is important to keep in mind Alexander was essentially a 27-year-old rookie this year, so he’s a late bloomer. This is his peak right now, and given the inherent volatility of relievers, it may end up he’s not worth keeping for all five of those years of control. That’s the reliever circle of life.

Also, Alexander has two minor league options remaining, so he can be sent to Triple-A, if necessary. Then again, if you trade for him and have to send him to the minors, something’s gone wrong.

What Will It Take To Get Him?

This is difficult to answer because there are so few trade trade benchmarks out there. Relievers with one good season under their belt and five years of team control don’t get traded all that often. I’ve found two recent trades we can reference:

  • Ken Giles: Traded with a low level prospect (Jonathan Arauz) for Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, two mid-range prospects (Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman), and a low level prospect (Harold Arauz).
  • Enny Romero: Traded for a non-top 30 organizational prospect (Jeffrey Rosa).

That’s pretty much all we’ve got. I’d say Alexander slots in somewhere between Giles, who had a year and a half of excellence under his belt at the time of the trade, and Romero, who was pretty terrible with the Rays before ending up with the Nationals. He shouldn’t cost as much as Giles nor as little as Romero, which doesn’t help us at all.

Last year the Royals traded Wade Davis for Jorge Soler and Jarrod Dyson for Nate Karns, both straight up deals, which could mean they want MLB ready pieces in return to try to speed up the rebuild. Then again, their goal last year was to strengthen the big league roster in an effort to win one last time before their core players became free agents. The goal now might be getting the best and most talent possible regardless of proximity to the big leagues.

The good news is the Yankees are pretty loaded in the farm system, so if the Royals want MLB pieces, they can offer that. If they want higher upside players who are further away, they can offer that too. I’d prefer to see the Yankees dip into all those pitching prospects to make a trade. They’re loaded with arms and inevitably a few of those guys will get hurt or otherwise flame out. Cashing some in as trade chips now seems wise. That’s just me.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yes for multiple reasons. One, Alexander is left-handed and pretty good! The Yankees have been looking for someone like that for an eternity. An extreme ground-baller would fit well in Yankee Stadium. Two, he’s still in his pre-arbitration years, so he’s cheap and under control for a while, which fits the luxury tax plan well. These days even middle of the road relievers are getting $4M a year, and that’s $4M the Yankees wouldn’t be able to spend elsewhere.

And three, I don’t think Alexander will cost a ton to acquire. It won’t be a reverse Andrew Miller trade or something like that, with multiple top prospects going to Kansas City. Are the Royals really in position to demand more than two good, but not great, prospects? Maybe they are, a bidding war could jack up the price, but Alexander’s track record is short and he’s already 28. Is his trade value as high as, say, Justin Wilson‘s two years ago? I’m not sure.

The Yankees may want to save their one open bullpen spot for younger pitchers, though given the way they’ve operated over the last however many seasons, I don’t think they’d let that stand in the way of adding another good big league reliever. Alexander comes with risks (limited track record, shoulder surgery, only throws one pitch) but at the right price, he’d be a worthwhile add to the bullpen. The Royals figure to make him available, so it’s up to the Yankees to decide what that right price is.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Alex Cobb

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Coming into the offseason it was clear the Yankees need at least one starting pitcher, if not two given the big workloads the staff endured in 2017. In a perfect world one of those two starters would’ve been Shohei Ohtani. That won’t happen though. Re-signing CC Sabathia seems likely, at least I think so, but even then there’s still room for another starter. There’s no such thing as too much pitching depth.

One of the top free agent starters this offseason — I’d say he’s the top second tier starter behind Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta — is longtime Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. He turned 30 in October, and even though the Rays haven’t been a .500 team since 2013 (true story), Cobb has been through the AL East grinder and knows what it’s like pitching against great teams in tough hitter friendly environments. The Yankees have not been seriously connected to him yet, only speculatively, though I suspect it’ll happen at some point. Let’s break Cobb down as a potential target.

Injury History

This is the logical place to start, because Cobb’s injury history is sneaky long. So long in fact that his 179.1 innings this season represent a new career high. Here’s a recap of his injury history with the amount of time missed:

  • 2010: Oblique strain (one month)
  • 2011: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery (missed final two months of the season)
  • 2013: Concussion (two months after being hit by a line drive)
  • 2014: Oblique strain (six weeks)
  • 2015: Tommy John surgery (entire season)
  • 2016: Tommy John surgery rehab (returned to MLB in late August)
  • 2017: Turf toe (three weeks)

Definitely some fluky stuff in there that is not a long-term concern. Two oblique strains four years apart? It happens. Turf toe? Whatever. Getting hit in the head by a line drive and being carted off the field on a stretcher, as scary as that is, is a total fluke. The baddest of bad luck injuries.

On the other hand, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is very serious and can end careers if not caught early enough. Tommy John surgery is obviously very bad too. The combination of the two is worse than the sum of the parts. Chris Carpenter is the only notable example of a pitcher who had both and went on to have a long career. Shaun Marcum and Noah Lowry had both and were done. Jaime Garcia had both and hasn’t been the same since. Same with Matt Harvey, though he’s only a year removed from his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.

The good news is Cobb had the procedures five years apart, and he returned in 2017 to be an effective pitcher in close to 180 innings. So perhaps he’s the next Carpenter rather than the next Marcum. In fact, he’s already ahead of the game just by making it back from both procedures and throwing a full season. Still though, that’s a pretty scary injury history, even ignoring the fluky stuff.

Recent Performance

When Cobb returned with his new elbow late last year, he was so bad that it’s almost hard to believe. He allowed 22 runs and 39 baserunners in five starts and 22 innings last season, after returning in August. Yuck. That said, it was his first five starts back from Tommy John surgery, so it’s fair to cut the guy some slack. Chalk it up to the rust and the usual post-elbow reconstruction wonkiness.

This season Cobb was much better, as he got further away from Tommy John surgery, though he did not perform like he did immediately prior to the injury. His numbers were down across the board. Here is Cobb’s final pre-Tommy John surgery season and his first full post-Tommy John surgery season:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 166.1 2.87 3.23 21.9% 6.9% 56.2% 0.6 .294 .265
2017 179.1 3.66 4.16 17.3% 5.9% 47.8% 1.1 .311 .295

Do you remember what baseball was like in 2014? Nobody scored runs. Teams scored, on average, 4.07 runs per game. The Angels led baseball with 4.77 runs per game that year. This season teams averaged 4.65 runs per game with the Astros leading the pack at 5.53 runs per game. The juiced ball has brought back offense, thankfully. I missed it.

Anyway, because of the offensive explosion from 2014 to 2017, we have to throw Cobb a bit of a bone here. His home run rate nearly doubled? Okay, part of that is what’s going on around baseball in general. The decline in strikeout rate and ground ball rate is not a juiced ball problem, however. In fact, we should’ve expected Cobb’s strikeout rate to increase this year because there are so many more strikeouts in baseball now.

That 2.87 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 2014 work out 77 ERA- and an 88 FIP-, meaning his ERA was 23% better than average and his FIP was 12% better than average. This year he had 86 ERA- and a 97 FIP-. Still better than average! But not as good as before Tommy John surgery when adjusted for ballpark and the offensive environment around baseball. Long story short: Cobb was good this year, but not as good as he was before blowing out his elbow.

Current Stuff

If you’ve been watching the Yankees long enough, chances are you’ve seen Cobb shut them down with that nasty split-finger fastball of his at some point. That pitch is the reason he made it to the big leagues. That pitch is also perhaps the biggest red flag surrounding Cobb at this point. Since Tommy John surgery, it has behaved almost nothing it did before he had his elbow rebuilt.

Eno Sarris touched on this back in April, but that was very early in the season, and now we have a full season’s worth of data to examine. Cobb’s splitter lost quite a bit of effectiveness from his pre-Tommy John surgery days. Here are the splitter numbers, ignoring that short and messy 2016 stint.

% Thrown Velo Gap Vert Mvmt Diff Horiz Mvmt Diff % Whiffs % GB
2013 32.7% 5.23 5.70 -0.29 18.9% 60.0%
2014 37.7% 5.26 5.22 0.76 21.1% 62.0%
2017 14.3% 6.07 1.72 -0.34 12.3% 51.8%

Cobb does throw his curveball regularly, though the sinker and splitter are his top two pitches, and that’s what we’re comparing here. The velocity gap and movement differences are between the sinker and splitter. That’s the whole point, right? Use the sinker to set up the splitter. You want the pitches to be similar but different, if that makes sense. A couple quick observations:

  • This year Cobb threw his trademark splitter way less than ever before in his MLB career. Imagine if Masahiro Tanaka did that? He’d be an entirely different pitcher.
  • Cobb had a larger velocity gap between his sinker and splitter this year than he did in 2013 and 2014, and that’s good. You want a big velocity gap between your fastball and offspeed stuff.
  • From 2013-14, Cobb’s splitter dropped more than five inches more than his sinker. This year the difference was less than two inches. That’s a significant difference. The bottom wasn’t falling out of the split.
  • The difference in horizontal movement between the two pitches was about the same this year as 2013, though way less than 2014. (The negative number in the table means the sinker moved more horizontally than the split.)

Ideally you want an 8-10 mph gap between your fastball and offspeed pitch (if not more), but even at his best from 2013-14, Cobb’s velocity gap was roughly five-and-a-quarter miles an hour. Because he doesn’t have that huge velocity gap, he relies on movement more than most, and for whatever reason, the split is not moving like it did before Tommy John surgery, especially vertically. It’s not diving out of the zone.

It should also be noted Cobb’s release point with his splitter — and only his splitter, weirdly — has risen since he came back from Tommy John surgery. He’s releasing the splitter from a higher spot than before his elbow ligament gave out. Look:

alex-cobb-release-point

That is weird. Is the change in release point causing the lack of movement? Or has Cobb raised his release point in an effort to generate more movement? Chicken or the egg, man. Chicken or the egg. Whatever it is, Cobb is not getting the same movement on his splitter now as he did before Tommy John surgery, and as a result, the pitch is generating fewer swings and misses and ground balls. And he’s not throwing it nearly as often.

The split-finger is what made Cobb so good before Tommy John surgery and that pitch is the key to him being a quality pitcher going forward. His sinker is fine and his curveball is fine, but they’re not good enough that he can scale back that much on his splitter and succeed forever. Like I said, what if Tanaka stopped throwing his splitter so much? He’d be a much different pitcher. Anyway, here’s some video of Cobb this year:

Seven strikeouts in the video. Four on sinkers and three on curveballs. Not one splitter. That would’ve been unthinkable for Cobb before Tommy John surgery. Bottom line: Cobb was quite good this season, but his splitter is not the same as it was before his elbow gave out for whatever reason, and unless that changes, there’s no reason to think he’ll return to his previous level of performance. He’s now a solid starter, not someone who is a borderline ace like he was from 2013-14. And hey, that’s fine. Solid starters are good to have.

Contract Estimates

Cobb is one of the top free agent starters on the market and that means he will be paid quite well. Quality starters never have trouble finding work. Here are two contract estimates:

I think both estimates are low. I could totally see Cobb pulling down $16M annually on a four or even five-year deal. That’s Ian Kennedy money. No, Kennedy did not have Tommy John surgery in his recent past, but he also wasn’t as good as Cobb, and he was a year older than Cobb is now when he hit free agency. Cobb at four years and $48M sounds pretty great actually, splitter issues be damned.

Also, keep in mind the Rays made Cobb the qualifying offer. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the Yankees would have to surrender their second and fifth round picks in the 2018 draft, and $1M in bonus money during the 2018-19 international signing period, to sign a qualified free agent. I’d rather give all that up than my first round pick like they did in old days, but that’s just me.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a quality starter — even with his post-Tommy John surgery splitter — and the Yankees could use another quality starter. It sure doesn’t hurt that Cobb is AL East battle tested and turned only 30 in October, meaning you should get another year or two of peak performance, in theory. The Yankees need another starter and Cobb is among the best available, so yes, he’s a fit on the field.

Is he fit under the luxury tax plan? My calculations say the Yankees have about $35M to play with under the luxury tax threshold, though I underestimated the team’s contribution to player benefits, so it’s actually closer to $32M or so. Still though, that’s a nice chunk of change, so the Yankees can afford Cobb. Can they afford Cobb and Sabathia? Eh, probably not. Remember, they have to leave some money open for midseason call-ups and the trade deadline additions.

Personally, I think Cobb carries an awful lot of risk. He has both Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Tommy John surgery in his history and his best pitch is not the same anymore, and I think it’s much more likely the pitch gets worse going forward with age, not better. Maybe Cobb will bounce back next year and pitch like the 2013-14 version of himself, or even just maintain his 2017 performance. I’m not willing to bet $12M or $14M or $16M or whatever it ends up being on him. It doesn’t matter what I think though. It matters what the Yankees think, and whether they’re willing to take the risk.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tony Watson

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

It is almost impossible to discuss the Yankees quest to find a reliable left-handed reliever without resorting to hyperbole. The team seems to be perpetually in search of a left-handed specialist, outside of those few months when Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller occupied the same bullpen. Most of that stems from heavy regression from internal candidates – such as Chasen Shreve and Tommy Layne – and it has prevented the team from playing the match-ups in the middle innings over the last season and a half. And, with some options on the free agent market, it seems likely that the Yankees will be on the hunt for a bit of stability in the left-on-left role.

Mike wrote about Jake McGee, the best or second-best left-handed reliever available, last week. Today I’ll be digging into the other contender for that distinction – Tony Watson.

Recent Performance

Tony Watson became an absolute stud in 2013, just as the Pirates transitioned from semi-laughingstock to legitimate playoff contender. He maintained an excellent level of performance for three seasons, but has regressed a bit over the last two years. Check out his numbers over the last five years, for reference:

capture

There are certainly some disconcerting signs, the most notable of which is Watson’s home run rate. Going from three straight seasons of elite home run prevention to back-to-back years of average (or worse) rates isn’t great. Moreover, his strikeout rate also slipped to a career low, even as league-wide rates spiked. Those factors combined to make him less effective – albeit still good – against lefties; it limited his utility as an all-purpose reliever, though.

It is worth noting that Watson was dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, and he looked much more like the pitcher he was the previous four years. His strikeout rate (+5.2 percentage points), groundball rate (+15.7 percentage points), home run rate (from 1.35 per 9 to 0.90), and LHH wOBA (from .316 to .279) all improved markedly, and he pitched very well in the playoffs.

The Stuff

Watson is a rare sort of reliever, in that he throws four distinct pitches – a four-seam fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, a sinker in that same range, a change-up in the upper 80s, and a mid-80s slider. His velocity has dipped since 2014, but has remained relatively steady these last three years. Take a look at his usage rates:

brooksbaseball-chart

The slider is Watson’s least-used pitch, and he still throws it between ten and fifteen percent of the time. One thing that stands out about this chart, particularly when you consider his improvements with the Dodgers, is his sinker usage. Take a look at 2017 as a whole:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

Watson went from essentially alternating between his four-seamer and sinker to featuring the latter, and it paid dividends. His strikeout rate jumped back into his career-norm range, and his groundball rate was a tick under 60% – and that’s an excellent combination. Whether or not that is a product of a small sample size or the Dodgers unlocking something in his sinker remains to be seen.

Injury History

It’s kind of remarkable how healthy Watson has been as a professional. He has made at least 67 appearances (including the minors) in each of the last seven seasons, and has never been on the major league disabled list. Watson did miss most of 2009 with inflammation in his left elbow, but he did not require surgery; his only other injury that I can find was when he had Tommy John surgery as a Junior at Nebraska.

Contract Estimates

Both MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs’ crowdsource predicted a two-year, $12 MM deal. That seems a bit light, given his long track record of success, “proven closer” status, and high-profile work with the Dodgers down the stretch and in the playoffs, and it therefore strikes me as incredibly reasonable. There are no comparables out there just yet, given how quiet this off-season has been (and the fact that Mike Minor may be starting for the Rangers), but most relievers of his ilk end up signing for three years and a higher AAV.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

The pre-2017 version and Dodgers version of Watson makes a great deal of sense for the Yankees, as a  left-handed reliever that shuts down lefties and is (usually more than) competent against righties. It’s difficult to fully ignore his first-half, though, as well as the trend that we can see between 2016 and 2017.

The Yankees, as an organization, seem to prefer to have a true left-handed specialist, and the aforementioned Shreve does not seem to be it. They also do not seem likely to sink money into a luxury item, given their payroll goals. Figuring out where Watson (or McGee) fits on that continuum is an open-ended question – but if he’s really going to sign for $6 MM a year, I could see him fitting into the team’s plans.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jake McGee

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)
(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)

For much of the last 12 months or so, the Yankees have been looking for a reliable left-handed reliever, and they’ve come up empty. Not including closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees received 76 innings from lefty relievers this season, and in those 76 innings they had a 4.62 ERA (4.87 FIP). Yuck. Most of the blame goes to Chasen Shreve, who threw 45.1 of those 76 innings.

The Yankees again figure to look for a left-handed reliever this offseason, though it should be noted six of their seven bullpen spots are accounted for (Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances), and just about all of their righties can get out lefties. Kahnle is the only real exception. A middle innings southpaw isn’t a pressing need, but if the Yankees can find one, great.

Arguably the best left-handed reliever on the free agent market this winter is former Rays and Rockies southpaw Jake McGee, who’s spent time closing and setting up and doing basically everything there is to do in a bullpen these days. He’s a free agent for the first time, and given the perpetually growing importance of bullpens, he might cash in very big. Let’s see whether McGee is a fit for the Yankees.

Current Performance

With the Rays from 2012-15, the now 31-year-old McGee was lights out and arguably the best lefty reliever in the game aside from Chapman. He got Coors Fielded pretty hard the last two years though. His numbers since 2015:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
2015 37.1 2.41 2.33 32.7% 5.4% 38.9% 0.72 .259 .228
2016 45.2 4.73 5.29 18.5% 7.8% 40.1% 1.77 .359 .388
2017 57.1 3.61 2.93 25.3% 7.0% 40.5% 0.63 .301 .255

Reliever performance fluctuates wildly. News at 11. In all seriousness, McGee’s introduction to Coors Field in 2016 was not pretty, and it probably didn’t help that he was dealing with nagging inflammation in his left knee all season.

As you’d expect, McGee’s performance the last two seasons was quite a bit better on the road away from Coors Field than at home. Here are his 2016-17 splits:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 wOBA
Home 50.2 5.51 4.99 20.3% 7.4% 46.2% 1.78 .359
Road 52.1 2.75 3.00 24.0% 7.0% 34.0% 0.52 .284

Coors Field McGee was very bad. Road McGee looks an awful lot like the Rays version of McGee. Now, that said, I don’t think evaluating Rockies players is as simple as taking their road numbers and saying that’s who they really are. For starters, three of the other four NL West parks are big time pitchers’ parks. Secondly, there’s been some research showing Rockies players have been disproportionately hurt when they come down from altitude.

Generally speaking, McGee has been a very good reliever throughout his career, though his numbers the last two years have been skewed by Coors Field and also the nagging knee problem. Shewed how much? It’s hard to say. Whoever signs him will hope they get someone close to Road McGee and be happy if they get someone close to 2017 McGee.

Current Stuff

McGee is a very interesting pitcher. He throws almost nothing but fastballs. Three-hundred-and-twenty-two pitchers threw at least 100 innings from 2016-17. Here are the highest four-seam fastball usage rates from those 322 pitchers:

  1. Jake McGee: 88.9%
  2. Tony Cingrani: 83.5%
  3. Ryan Buchter: 80.3%
  4. Zach McAllister: 80.2%
  5. Aroldis Chapman: 78.5%

Huh, I’m kinda surprised four of the top five pitchers in four-seamer usage the last two seasons are lefties. McAllister is the only righty on that list.

Anyway, so yeah, McGee throws a lot of fastballs. More than five fastballs per 100 pitches more than any other pitcher the last two years. And you know what’s crazy? McGee’s four-seamer rate was even higher this season. It was 92.8% in 2017. McGee would regularly sit 96-98 mph with his heater with the Rays, though it’s more 94-96 mph these days.

jake-mcgee-velocity

McGee starting having knee trouble late in 2015 and you clearly can see the corresponding velocity drop in the graph. It was his left knee, his push-off knee, so he wasn’t able to generate the same velocity. This season, with a healthy knee, his velocity was more stable and closer to where it was while he was in Tampa. (Chances are he’ll never get it all the way back to where it was a few years ago because of wear and tear, etc.)

McGee’s fastball spin rate was almost exactly average the last two years — it was 2,258 rpm from 2016-17, and the league average was 2,261 rpm — and his fastball “rise” (+10.0 inches) was close to average as well (+9.3 inches). It doesn’t seem like it should be a dominant pitch, but because of the way McGee changes eye levels, he’s very successful. Check out his fastball swing-and-miss heat map:

jake-mcgee-fastball-whiffsElevated fastballs are a great swing-and-miss pitch, and McGee has it mastered. He pitches in, out, up, and down with his heater, then get hitters to chase upstairs with two strikes. Here’s one of his outings from this past season:

There is something of a Chad Green element to McGee’s fastball. Green throws his fastball a lot and hitters just can not hit it for whatever reason. The velocity is not overwhelming relative to the average reliever, and yet, no one can hit it. McGee’s fastball isn’t as effective as Green’s, but it’s close. It leaves you shaking your head. Throwing basically one pitch, a straight-ish four-seam fastball, that often against Major League hitters shouldn’t work, but it does for McGee.

McGee’s other pitch is an upper-70s slurve — there’s one in the video above — that is more of a curveball than a slider, though the break is somewhere in between the two pitches. It’s a show-me pitch. McGee will throw one or two per outing just to keep hitters honest. This is a fastball only pitcher who is going to challenge hitters with his heater. Country hardball.

Injury History

As with most pitchers in their 30s, McGee does have an injury history. I’ve already told you about the knee. McGee pitched on a torn meniscus in 2015 and had surgery late in the season, which led to the inflammation in 2016. The knee did not bother him at all this season. His other notable injuries:

  • Tommy John surgery in June 2008.
  • Surgery to remove a loose body from his elbow in April 2015.
  • Two weeks on the disabled list with a back strain in late-July/early-August 2017.

Something for everyone. Arm injury? Check. Lower body injury? Also check. Back injury? Another check. I suppose the good news is there’s nothing chronic here. McGee hasn’t have elbow or back or knee problems year after year after year. For the most part, his injuries were isolated incidents.

Contract Estimates

Coming into this exercise I expected to reference the four-year, $30.5M contract Brett Cecil signed with the Cardinals last offseason quite a bit, but the two most popular contract projections have McGee getting less:

Hmmm. I think the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing is going to be closer to the actual number. Cecil ($7.625M), Darren O’Day ($7.75M), Joakim Soria ($8.33M), and Brad Ziegler ($9M) all recently signed contracts in the $7.5M to $9M annual salary range. Heck, Ryan Madson was out of baseball from 2012-14, and he was able to turn a good 2015 season into a three-year deal worth $7M annually. The going rate for a good free agent reliever is $8M or so a year nowadays.

Perhaps McGee’s recent knee and back trouble limit his market, or teams really hold his Coors Field performance against him, and he falls into the $6M per year range like MLBTR projects. That strikes me as a really good deal. McGee at $18M from 2018-20 or Cecil at $22.75M from 2018-20? Yeah, I know which one I’m picking. Three years and $8M annually sounds about right to me. Maybe McGee even gets a fourth year. It only takes one team to make that crazy offer, after all.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yeah, I think so. Definitely. McGee is used to pitching in a tough environment — going from Coors Field to Yankee Stadium will probably feel like a relief to him — and he’s familiar with the AL East after spending all those seasons with the Rays. He’s a strikeout pitcher without a massive platoon split, so he wouldn’t need to be sheltered as a straight left-on-left matchup guy.

It is completely reasonable to wonder how effective McGee will be once he inevitably starts to lose some fastball. He’s already losing some fastball, in fact. His average velocity was 95.4 mph this past season, down from 97.5 mph just three years ago. What happens when McGee is averaging 93.5 mph, or 92.0 mph? Throwing 90% fastballs might not work so well at that velocity.

My guess is the Yankees are not eager to spend $8M or so per season on another reliever given their current bullpen situation. Not with the luxury tax plan in place. Maybe if McGee can be had at $6M annually, they’ll pounce. I think the luxury tax plan and the fact the Yankees are already quite strong in the bullpen will send them looking for a bargain lefty, not a high-priced one like McGee. He’s a fit, but he’s not a fit. Know what I mean?