Scouting the Trade Market: Patrick Corbin

(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

The Yankees have been linked to the Diamondbacks and Patrick Corbin several times over the last couple of days, and it has become clear that adding a starting pitcher is their top priority. Mike wrote about a bit about Corbin as a potential trade target last off-season, but another season of data post-Tommy John Surgery has shifted the calculus a bit.

Current Performance

Corbin was viewed as something of a buy low candidate this time last year, as his first full season removed from elbow surgery had less than inspiring results, and the Diamondbacks appeared to be going nowhere fast. And now, twelve months later, Corbin had a healthy, above-average season, and the Diamondbacks made it to the NLDS. There’s no indication that he isn’t available, though. Let’s take a look as these last two years:

capture

Keeping in mind that Chase Field is a big-time hitter’s park, Corbin’s 2017 was impressive on several levels. His 4.03 ERA translated into a 119 ERA+, which was tied for the 10th best in the National League, and in the top-30 in all of baseball. Corbin improved across the board in 2017, with only his groundball rate taking a step back – and, even then, it ranked 8th among all qualified starting pitchers. His strikeout and walk rates were above-average, as well. When you put that all together, he was basically the same pitcher that he was before 2016’s ugly campaign.

There were plenty of improvements that don’t show-up in traditional stats, too. His hard contact rate dropped from 38.5% to 31.6%, and his exit velocity went from 89.3 MPH to 87.3 MPH. While there are still some questions about the usability of this data regarding performance, it boils down to both rates going from comfortably below-average to right around league-average.

So, in short, Corbin became harder to hit in 2017, and, when he was hit, it was with far less authority. That’s a good precursor for success.

Current Stuff

Corbin is a four-pitch pitcher, working with a low-90s four-seamer, a low-90s sinker, a low-to-mid 80s change-up, and a low-80s slider. Take a look:

brooksbaseball-chart

There is something of a warning sign within this graphic, and that’s the noticeable dip in velocity over the coure of 2017. Corbin’s velocity ticked up throughout 2016, and he started 2017 in the same range; by the time the season was over, though, he had lost about 2.5 MPH from his heater. That’s not ideal, and it did appear to have an impact on his success. Corbin ran a 9.00 ERA in May, which stands out more than most anything – but he posted his worst walk rate (by far) in September, alongside big drops in strikeouts (7.0 K/9) and grounders (47.1%).

Could that have been a result of Corbin tiring? Absolutely. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missing the entire season, tossed 102 IP between rehab and the majors in 2015, and then 155.2 IP in 2016. The 189.2 IP he threw this year represented a big increase in workload, and it was the most innings that he had thrown since 2013 – so may’ve been straight-up gassed. It’s nevertheless something that any interested team will be thinking about.

Corbin throws all four of his pitches to both righties and lefties, with his slider being his primary weapon against right-handed hitters. He threw it about a third of the time last year, an increase of nearly 11 percentage points against 2016 – and righties hit just .179 with a .309 SLG against it. They basically tee-off against all of his other pitches, though, and that has been an issue throughout his career.

Injury History

As I said above, Corbin had Tommy John surgery in 2014, which kept him out for all of that season and much of 2015. And that’s something that you can’t ignore. However, he has otherwise been healthy throughout his professional career, which dates back to 2009.

Contract Status

Corbin is entering his final year of arbitration, which makes him a rental. MLB Trade Rumors projects an $8.3 MM salary for 2018.

What Would it Take?

The most comparable case of a deal for a starting pitcher with one year of arbitration eligibility remaining is probably Jeff Samardzija. He was coming off an All-Star appearance in his age-29 season, having posted a 2.99 ERA (125 ERA+) in 219.2 IP. The then-30-year-old was dealt by the A’s (alongside Michael Ynoa) to the White Sox for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt, and middling prospect Rangel Ravelo prior to the 2015 season.

Semien was the prize of the deal, as a former top-100 prospect (ranked 91 by BA heading into 2014) that had scuffled a bit in his first extended look in the majors. Phegley was viewed as a back-up catcher, Bassitt a back of the rotation starter or reliever, and Ravelo as a potential platoon player. It was viewed as a solid but unspectacular return, for what it’s worth.

The buzz around Samardzija then was almost certainly more than it is for Corbin now, but the difference in their production wasn’t all that different. A similar package from the Yankees is hard to cobble together, but it might start with a couple of guys in the back half of their top-10 (Thairo Estrada and Miguel Andujar?) and Luis Cessa. My trade proposal sucks.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

Maybe. He will undoubtedly cost less than Michael Fulmer, Gerrit Cole, and Chris Archer, given his impending free agency, but he was as good or better than all three my some measures last year. If the Yankees are looking to bolster their odds of winning this year without dipping into their top-level prospects, Corbin may be the best of the bunch. And I am not too concerned about the drop in velocity (particularly when you see the warts on the other players they’ve expressed interest in).

That being said, if the Yankees are playing for the short and medium term – which they seem to be – then Corbin doesn’t make much sense, unless they’re holding their bullets for another move…

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Neil Walker

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Yankees have (for the best of reasons) unexpectedly found themselves in need of a second baseman and/or a third baseman. That is, unless you expect them to go into 2018 with a rookie at one of those positions, and Ronald Torreyes at the other; suffice it to say that I don’t. Barring a trade for Manny Machado, the free agent market may be the best place to go for a short-term and palatable solution. And Neil Walker – who the Yankees allegedly backed out of a deal for at the trade deadline – is probably the best option.

Offensive Performance

Walker has rather quietly put together a solid eight-year career. A switch-hitter, he owns a career .272/.341/.437 line (115 wRC+) in over four-thousand plate appearances, and he hasn’t posted a wRC+ below 106 since his 40 PA cup of coffee in 2009. He’s been rather consistent, too, with his wRC+ checking in between 106 and 130 in each of his full seasons. And the last two years have been no exception:

screen-shot-2017-12-12-at-10-01-19-pm

The discrepancy in his power and walk rate do stick out a little bit, but those represent the largest swings in his career. Moreover, neither is the negative sort of outlier that suggests a decline, or anything of that nature – and his .174 ISO in 2017 was still a tick above his career ISO, so it isn’t as if his power is disappearing.

Walker’s performance against LHP does stick out like a sore thumb, and does appear to make a liar out of me, regarding his consistency. However, 2016 is the outlier here, as he has always been much better against righties. He has a 121 wRC+ against righties for his career, as compared to a 91 against southpaws. Walker might be best-suited as a platoon option, and that’s essentially how he has been used over the last several seasons.

It’s as a LHH that Walker hits for most of his power, and he does so to the pull side. Take a look as his spray chart as a LHH for the last two seasons:

screen-shot-2017-12-12-at-10-19-31-pm

Just under 45% of his batted balls go to right or right center, but he’s still tough to shift against as he is more than capable of driving pitches back up the middle. As per FanGraphs, he’s only see the shift in 414 PA for his career, and he has a career .323 against it (including .285 last year). Both points suggest that his bat would play well in Yankee Stadium … and he does have 2 HR and a 1.031 OPS in 21 PA there.

Defensive Performance

Walker is a second baseman by trade, and the metrics are all over the place. He has been a tick below-average there overall, with career rates of -2 DRS/150 and -3.7 UZR/150. He hasn’t been consistent on that side of the ball, though:

  • 2015: -2 DRS, -8.8 UZR/150
  • 2016: 0 DRS, 11.1 UZR/150
  • 2017: -5 DRS, -2.1 UZR/150

Over the last three years he has been anywhere between awful and awesome, and the two go-to defensive metrics disagree with each other within each season. The reality is likely that he is a tick below-average but competent at the keystone.

He is somewhat versatile, as well, having logged 86.1 innings at first and 34.1 innings at third this year. It was his first time playing a position other than second since 2010, but he played both positions in the minors. Walker actually came up as a third baseman, and has played 444 games at the hot corner in his professional career. The sample sizes at the big league level are small and spread out over several years, so it’s tough to take much away from them (they’re not good, though). Whether or not he could be counted on to play either position for an extended period of time is an open-ended question.

Injury History

The Yankees backed out of the deal for Walker due to his slow recovery from a partially torn hamstring, which kept him out for about six weeks over the summer. That wasn’t his first brush with the injury bug, either, as he missed the last month of 2016 with a back injury, which required surgery. Walker has missed time in almost every season with nagging injuries, but those are the two big baseball-related ones. This is probably the biggest knock against him as a free agent, as he’s 32 and has missed a month and change with injuries in back-to-back seasons.

Contract Estimates

Walker is said to be looking for a four-year deal, but there are no dollar figures tied to that just yet. MLB Trade Rumors went with 2-years, $20 MM, and FanGraphs’ Crowdsourcing projected 3-years, $39 MM. Last year’s market saw just two non-first base infielders get multiyear deals: Sean Rodriguez (2-years, $11 MM), Luis Valbuena (2-years, $15 MM), and Justin Turner (4-years, $64 MM). If the market unfolds similarly, one has to imagine that he’d be closer to Turner than to Valbuena or Rodriguez. Given that and his injuries, I think the FanGraphs number is close to the mark.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

Walker checks pretty much every box if the Yankees are looking for a veteran at second – he hits, he works the count, he hits for power, he’s a capable defender, he’s a switch-hitter, and he might have some defensive versatility. The injuries would need to be looked into thoroughly, and his struggles against lefties might mean that Torreyes plays more than we’d like – but I don’t think either is a dealbreaker.

The issue is money. Brian Cashman has $30+ MM to play with, which means that he could easily fit in this year, even with a $13 MM price tag – and I could even see next year working out, with some finagling. But adding a third year is undoubtedly out of the question. If he’s available for the MLBTR projection, I’d be all-in; if he won’t settle for anything less than three-years, I’d be out. And I’m confident that the Yankees will be, too.

Scouting the Trade Market: Michael Fulmer

(Justin Edmonds/Getty)
(Justin Edmonds/Getty)

Within the last week the Yankees have added the reigning NL MVP, traded away their starting second and third basemen, and freed up some payroll space under the $197M luxury tax threshold. It’s been a busy few days. And the Yankees aren’t done either. Yesterday’s Chase Headley salary dump was so very clearly a precursor to something else. The Yankees cleared that $13M in salary obligation so they could use it elsewhere.

Starting pitching was a priority coming into the winter and, even after these busy few days, it remains a priority. Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery are a quality top four. The best top four in the AL East, I’d say. But the fifth spot is open and the Yankees might want to handle that top four carefully given their big 2017 workloads. There’s even talk the Yankees could acquire two starting pitchers this offseason, not just one.

One name floating around over the last 24 hours or so is Tigers righty Michael Fulmer, who beat out Gary Sanchez for the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year award, not that I’m still bitter or anything. The Tigers are dreadful — they went 64-98 in 2017 and went 13-41 of their final 54 games, if you can believe that — and they’re just now starting their rebuild, so keeping Fulmer means hoping he stays healthy the next few years before they’re ready to contend. That’s risky.

The Yankees certainly have the prospects to trade for Fulmer — “There are a handful of teams out there that have the players to do it,” said Tigers GM Al Avila to Jason Beck earlier this week about the possibility of a trade — plus they have the motivation. He’s good, he’s young, he’s cheap, and he’s under control for a while. Fulmer would help the Yankees win now and later. Let’s break him down as a trade candidate, shall we?

Current Performance

Fulmer’s sophomore season was not quite as good as his 2016 debut, though he was still effective and a quality starting pitcher. Here are the overall numbers the last two seasons:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2016 159 3.06 3.76 20.4% 6.5% 49.1% 0.91 .295 .276
2017 164.2 3.83 3.67 16.9% 5.9% 49.2% 0.71 .268 .292
Total 323.2 3.45 3.71 18.6% 6.2% 49.2% 0.81 .281 .284

Very good overall. Fulmer is more of a ground ball guy that a strike out guy, and while the Yankees tend to seek out pitchers who can get both, I think they’d be willing to bet on Fulmer being able to increase his strikeout rate going forward through various tweaks and pitch selection changes, things like that. His quality of contact rates held steady from 2016 to 2017:

2016 hard contact rate: 30.4% (31.4% league average)
2017 hard contact rate: 30.0% (31.0% league average)

2016 soft contact rate: 19.2% (18.8% league average)
2017 soft contact rate: 18.1% (18.9% league average)

2016 average exit velocity: 87.0 mph (87.7 mph league average)
2017 average exit velocity: 85.7 mph (86.6 mph league average)

The biggest difference between 2016 Fulmer and 2017 Fulmer is strand rate. He had a 79.0% strand rate in 2016 and a 65.6% strand rate in 2017. The league average is 72.6%. Strand rate is a pitcher skill but only to a certain degree. A lot of is tied to sequencing and general baseball randomness. Sometimes you give up a walk, a bloop, and a blast. Others you give up a blast, a bloop, and a walk.

Strand rate can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, like it did for Fulmer. Chances are his true talent strand rate is somewhere between 2016 and 2017, which would put him at basically the league average. The decline in strikeout rate could certainly explain the strand rate drop to some degree — fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, and inevitably more hits falling in — but a 3.5 percentage point drop in strikeout rate and a 13.4 percentage point drop in strand rate? Nah. The strikeout rate doesn’t explain all that.

The tools are there for Fulmer to be successful and he has been successful in his MLB career to date. He doesn’t walk many batters and he gets an above-average number of ground balls. That’s a pretty great starting point for a guy who doesn’t turn 25 until March. Fulmer did strike out hitters at a below-average rate in his two seasons, though not so far below-average that it’s a big red flag. It’s not like he was running a 10.6% strikeout rate like Ty Blach, you know?

Current Stuff

Fulmer is a no nonsense pitcher. He throws everything hard. His four-seamer and sinker both sit in the mid-90s, and both his slider and changeup sit in the upper-80s. He’s not unlike Severino in terms of velocity. Everything is hard. And Fulmer throws all four pitches regularly.

michael-fulmer-pitch-selection

That pitch mix is why Fulmer has had success against both righties and lefties in his career. He has a quality slider for righties and a quality changeup for lefties, and there’s plenty of velocity on the two fastballs for everyone. Here’s some video from his past season, just so you can see what Fulmer’s stuff looks like:

Given his fastball velocity and the way he likes to bury his slider and changeup in the dirt, I can’t help but wonder whether Fulmer would be able to increase his strikeout rate by climbing the ladder with two strikes and getting hitters to chase heaters up at eye level. Here are the pitch locations of all his swings and misses in 2017:

michael-fulmer-whiffsMost of Fulmer’s swings and misses came on sliders and changeups down in the zone. There aren’t many on fastballs up in the zone or even up and out of the zone. Fulmer generally pounds the bottom of the strike zone with everything, hence the ground balls. There’s something to be said for elevating and changing eye levels though. The Red Sox helped Rick Porcello win a Cy Young (lol) by getting him to elevate his heater, so there is precedent for acquiring a talented young Tigers pitcher, making that adjustment, and reaping the rewards.

Injury History

Fulmer does have a bit of an injury history, including a pair of elbow surgeries. Neither was Tommy John surgery though. Here are his injuries:

  • 2013: Surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee.
  • 2014: Surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow after the season.
  • 2017: Missed a week with shoulder fatigue, then missed two weeks with elbow irritation, then had season-ending ulnar nerve transposition surgery in early-September.

I suppose the good news is Fulmer’s elbow is structurally sound. They ran all the tests when his elbow starting barking and everything came back clean. The ulnar nerve transposition surgery means they literally moved a nerve to a different spot to avoid irritation. Jacob deGrom had the same procedure last offseason and was ready for Opening Day, and had a great season. Fulmer is expected to ready for Spring Training. Still though, there are a few too many arm injuries in there for such a young guy.

Contract Status

The Tigers called Fulmer up late last April, which was late enough to push his free agency back a year, so that’s cool. He is under team control for another five seasons, so through 2022. Fulmer will be a Super Two — he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time next year — so his arbitration years will be more expensive than usual, but the most important thing is those five years of control. You’re getting this guy for five seasons before he can become a free agent.

Also, Fulmer has two minor league options remaining, so he can be sent to Triple-A, if necessary. Then again, if you trade for him and need to send him down, something went wrong. You don’t want to have to use those options.

What Would It Take?

Acquiring five years of a young and very good starting pitcher is going to cost you, no doubt. You’re not getting Fulmer for some 40-man roster scraps, even with him currently on the mend from elbow surgery. Not too many guys like Fulmer get traded, so I had a tough time coming up with trade benchmarks. I found two.

  • Max Scherzer: Traded with a lefty reliever (Daniel Schlereth) for Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson in a three-team deal way back in the day. This was a few years before he became three-time Cy Young award winner Max freaking Scherzer.
  • Michael Pineda: Traded for a top five global prospect (Jesus Montero) with some other players (Vicente Campos and Hector Noesi) involved. You remember this trade.

I’m not sure those trades help us much. Then Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was supposedly fixated on getting Montero. He went to the Yankees asking for Montero, and the Yankees named their price. The Yankees didn’t go to Zduriencik asking for Pineda. Simple supply and demand will control Fulmer’s market. The more teams in the mix, the more expensive he’ll be.

Avila will surely ask for Gleyber Torres. That’s what I’d do. Ask for Gleyber, see what happens, and if you have to negotiate down from there, so be. The Giancarlo Stanton trade likely makes Clint Frazier very available. Can the Yankees build a trade package around Frazier and some lesser secondary pieces? Or will the Tigers push for that strong secondary piece, like Justus Sheffield or Chance Adams? Whatever they want, it’ll hurt. Guys like Fulmer should be hard to get.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

For sure. Fulmer is young, he’s very good, and he’s under control for five more years. Five more years! He’s also received positive reviews for his work ethic and competitiveness throughout his pro career. The arm injuries are an obvious red flag, though at least his recent elbow woes are not structural, and involve a procedure with recent precedent for a pitcher quickly coming back at full strength (deGrom).

I get the decline in strikeouts is a concern, though I think that is something can be solved with tweaks to Fulmer’s pitch selection and approach, namely using that fastball up in the zone more often. His power stuff is great. The tools to get strikeouts are there. It’s just a matter of a young pitcher gaining experience. That sort of thing. Fulmer is not a Nathan Eovaldi type who throws hard and gets hit hard. He’s been quite successful doing what he’s been doing.

Now, the elephant in the room is the brawlgame with the Tigers this summer. That all started when Fulmer drilled Sanchez in the third game of a three-game series in which Sanchez was whacking monster home runs all over the park. Was it intentional? Maybe not. But it sure seemed fishy. If the Yankees were to make a trade for Fulmer, I would think they’d go to Sanchez first, and see what he thinks. If there’s a grudge there, it might be a problem.

The J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Justin Upton trades were widely panned this summer because pundits did not believe the Tigers received enough, especially for Martinez and Verlander. Will Avila try to make up for that by knocking it out of the park with an Fulmer trade, or is there is a disconnect somewhere? Do the Tigers value their players less than everyone else, or are they overrating everyone else’s prospects? Does anyone know anything or anything, or all we all just faking it?

If nothing else, Brian Cashman and the Yankees have shown they are pretty excellent dealmakers these last few years. They came out on the wrong end of the Eovaldi trade. There’s no doubt about that. But look at all the other trades they’ve made. Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Chapman again, now Stanton. If the Yankees deem Fulmer worth pursuing, I trust Cashman & Co. to make a good trade.

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.