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?

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Alex Avila

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Weirdly enough, the Yankees could be in the market for a catcher this offseason. Gary Sanchez is one of the best catchers in baseball and the Yankees aren’t about to move him out from behind the plate — “Hell no,” said Brian Cashman to Jon Morosi when asked about moving Sanchez to DH earlier this week — so there is no need for a starting catcher. The Yankees could use a new backup though.

Austin Romine, the backup catcher the last two seasons, hit .218/.272/.293 (49 wRC+) this year and .228/.271/.330 (57 wRC+) the last two years. Forty-four catchers batted at least 400 times from 2016-17. Romine ranks 43rd in wRC+, ahead of only Caleb Joseph. He’s a bad hitter even by backup catcher standards. Also, Romine threw out only 10% of basestealers this year, and his overall defensive numbers are just okay.

Point is, Romine doesn’t really do anything well, at least not according to numbers we have. Being just an okay defender is not enough when you don’t provide any offense. MLBTR projects a $1.2M salary for Romine next year, and while that’s not much in the grand scheme of things, it could push the Yankees to look at other backup catcher options. They might be able to find a more impactful backup catcher, even though most backup catchers provide no impact.

Arguably the best catcher on the free agent market this year is longtime Tigers (and short time White Sox and Cubs) backstop Alex Avila. It’s either Avila or Jonathan Lucroy. Avila has settled in as a backup the last few years and, as a left-handed hitter, he could mesh well with Yankee Stadium. Would it make sense for the Yankees to pursue him? Well, yes, of course. But how aggressive should they be? Let’s see whether Avila fits with the Yankees need.

Offensive Performance

Way back in 2011, during his age 24 season, Avila hit .295/.389/.506 (140 wRC+) with 19 home runs and was an All-Star. True story. He followed it up by hitting .243/.352/.384 (104 wRC+) in 2012 and .224/.334/.360 (96 wRC+) from 2012-15, which isn’t truly awful for a catcher, but it isn’t great. Avila’s playing time was reduced and he became a backup the last two years.

With the White Sox last season Avila put up a .213/.359/.373 (106 wRC+) line with seven homers in 209 plate appearances. Pretty good! The Tigers brought him back this year, and he hit .274/.394/.475 (133 wRC+) in 264 plate appearances with them before being traded to the Cubs, with whom he hit .239/.369/.380 (103 wRC+) in 112 plate appearances. The end result: .264/.387/.447 (124 wRC+) with 14 homers in 376 trips to the plate.

Early this season Avila looked like one of those “fly ball revolution” guys, the guys who apparently just now realized hitting the ball in the air and out of the ballpark is a good thing. Avila had a 52.2% ground ball rate last year. It was 30.5% in April, May, and June of this season. It didn’t last though. Avila’s ground ball rate climbed as the season progressed and his production dipped.

alex-avila-grounders

So who is the real Avila? The league average-ish hitter with a 44.8% ground ball rate from 2012-16, or the well-above-average hitter with a 38.5% ground ball rate in 2017? The smart money is on the league average-ish guy, and hey, league average is a-okay with me. We’re talking about a backup catcher here.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Avila told Chris McCosky back in June when asked about the fly balls and potential swing changes:

“I haven’t changed anything with my swing,” he said. “It’s the same, it really is. I haven’t tried to make any adjustments with it.”

“Toward the end of last year and going into this year, I was like, ‘I really don’t care (about the shift). I am just going to hit it hard,’” he said. “I’ve got balls through the shift and I’ve hit balls the other way. My focus now is just hitting the ball hard and let whatever happens happen.”

Avila is, for the most part, a dead pull left-handed hitter, so he does get shifted. A lot. The shift has been on for 81% of Avila’s balls in play the last three years, which is Brian McCann/David Ortiz/Chris Davis territory. Being a dead pull hitter is not necessarily a bad thing. It does limit Avila’s ability to hit for average, however.

Fly balls or no fly balls, shift or no shift, Avila’s offensive game breaks down into three things. One, he draws a ton of walks. His career walk rate is 14.0% and over the last three years it’s 17.4%. Two, he strikes out a lot. His career strikeout rate is 28.1%, and over the last three years it’s 32.9%. And three, when Avila hits the ball in the air, he hits it hard. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives the last three years is 95.9 mph. The league average is 92.1 mph.

With Avila, you’re getting a hitter who hits for a low average because he strikes out and pulls the ball into the shift, but also will draw a ton of walks and hit for power when he gets the ball in the air. Whoever signs him will hope he gets the ball airborne as often in 2018 as he did in 2017. And if not, he can still be a useful hitter based on 2016. Lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, some power depending on his ground ball rate. And zero baserunning value. Avila is every bit as slow as you’d expect a soon-to-be 31-year-old catcher with over 6,000 career innings on his legs.

Defensive Performance

Catcher defense is difficult to evaluate, and for what it’s worth, the various defensive stats all say Avila is below average overall behind the plate. He is basically an average thrower. We know that much. He threw out 31% of basestealers this year and 29.4% the last three years. That is a hair above-average. The pitch-framing numbers are not good:

Pitch-framing is a weird thing. It obviously exists and is a valuable skill, but are the stats we have precise enough to measure it within a tenth of a run? Of course not. The stats we have are good directionally. When we have two sites and three years worth of data telling us Avila is a bad framer, I’m inclined to believe he’s a bad framer. How bad, exactly? That’s debatable. But bad.

The stats at Baseball Prospectus grade Avila as an average blocker — they have him at -0.8 runs blocking in over 1,400 innings the last three years — so put it all together and you get a below-average gloveman. Average throwing, average blocking, bad framing. Most backup catchers are good defenders, or at least talked up as good defenders, and bad hitters. Avila’s kinda the opposite. An average or better hitter and below average defender. You hope the bat makes up for the poor framing. Everything else kinda evens out.

Injury History

Like a lot of catchers his age, Avila has visited the disabled list a few times over the years. Hamstring trouble sidelined him twice last season, and he’s also missed time with knee soreness, a bruised forearm, and banged up fingers over the years. Typical catcher stuff.

The biggest injury concern with Avila is his concussion history. Remember a few years ago when he took a foul tip to the face mask so hard that the damn thing sparked?

Cool visual! But also probably incredibly bad for Avila’s brain. He missed time with concussions every year from 2012-14, and while he did not have a documented concussion from 2015-17, there’s a pretty good chance Avila got rattled behind the plate a few times. It’s scary stuff. Mike Matheny had to retire early due to concussions. Joe Mauer had to move to first base due to concussions.

The hamstring injury last season was just one of those baseball injuries. They happen. Avila doesn’t have a history of chronic hamstring problems. And a catcher missing time because he takes a foul tip to the forearm or fingers, or has sore knees, is not exactly unheard of. Those injuries come with the position. The concussions are another matter. They’re scary and, unfortunately, part of the job.

Contract Estimates

Catchers are always in demand and Avila will have no trouble finding work this winter, pitch-framing problems and concussion history and all. Here are some contract estimates:

Well how about that? Two projections that agree exactly. Avila signed one-year contracts worth $2.5M and $2M the last two offseasons, though neither time was he coming off a 124 wRC+ season with 14 homers. Also, the current free agent catching market stinks. Avila and Lucroy are the best available catchers, and Lucroy was terrible this season.

That two-year, $16M projection is based on Jason Castro getting three years and $24M last year, and injured Wilson Ramos getting two years and $12.5M. That $8M annually seems to be the going rate for a catcher who is kinda sorta good but flawed. Castro hadn’t hit in years. Ramos was coming back from a torn ACL. Avila isn’t a good framer and it’s been a very long time since he hit like he did in 2017. It’s not unreasonable to be skeptical of his ability to maintain that pace.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

In a vacuum, yes. Even the bad hitting version of Avila is an upgrade over 2016-17 Romine, and the offensive/throwing upgrades are likely more than enough to make up for the pitch-framing downgrade. Also, Avila can still fill in at first base like Romine — he’s started 24 games at first base over the years, and has made 43 career appearances at the position — plus he’s a left-handed hitter, which is nice for matchup purposes.

I see two problems with signing Avila to be the backup catcher. One, there’s not a chance in hell the Yankees will spend $8M annually (or thereabouts) on a backup catcher. Not with the plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold next season firmly in place. And two, why would Avila sign with the Yankees to back up Sanchez, one of the best catchers in baseball? Who wants that job? The Yankees will be faced with that problem every year going forward.

The Yankees could sign Avila with the idea of giving him, say, 60 starts behind the plate and another 40 or so at DH. There is something to be said for giving Sanchez only 100 starts behind the plate rather than 120-130 as a way to keep him healthy, and potentially reduce wear and tear so he stays productive later in the season. Is that really something Avila would be interested in though? I have to think he’s looking for a starting job, or at least something close to a starting job, after the season he just had.

Avila does fit what the Yankees need on the field, in my opinion. His expected salary doesn’t fit the luxury tax plan though, and I don’t think Avila wants to be stuck behind Sanchez. This is one of those “he’s a fit for the Yankees but the Yankees are not a fit for him” situations. Maybe Avila’s market will collapse this winter and the Yankees can scoop him up on a one-year, $2M-ish contract like the deals he’s signed the last two offseasons. I have a hard timing thinking that’ll happen though. Catching is always in demand and other teams can offer Avila a greater opportunity.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tyler Chatwood

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

The Yankees starting rotation is far more settled heading into 2018 than it was this past season, and it’s a pretty good feeling. Luis Severino earned a top-three finish in the Cy Young voting, Masahiro Tanaka rebounded brilliantly from a poor first half, Sonny Gray was mostly as good as advertised, and Jordan Montgomery was the best rookie starting pitcher in baseball, and all four will be in the rotation this coming season.

That leaves one spot open for a potential reunion with CC Sabathia, an internal candidate like Chance Adams, international free agent-to-be Shohei Otani (perhaps their primary target), or “other.” There’s a great deal of off-season to go, but it is clear that, as of this writing, the Yankees need a fifth starter. And my favorite free agent for that role is Tyler Chatwood.

Recent Performance

Let’s take a look at Chatwood’s numbers over the past two seasons:

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Two things jump out immediately – he didn’t throw a full workload in either season, and he regressed fairly heavily from 2016 to 2017. Well, those things, as well as the fact that Coors Field is still a veritable death trap for pitchers, given that his 4.69 ERA was actually 7% better than league-average (relative to the conditions in which he played) … but I digress.

Chatwood was quite good across the board in 2016, and something closer to mediocre in 2017, and there’s obviously value in both. The middling strikeout and walk rates leave something to be desired, but his groundball rates are elite, he limits hard contact (league-average was 31.8% in 2017), and his home run rate was actually a tick above-average. There are reasons to believe that he is closer to the pitcher that we saw in 2016 than last year’s version as a result.

And, as you might suspect, he has been significantly better on the road the last two years:

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The sample sizes are relatively small, and Chatwood pitched in a division with three pitcher’s parks on the docket, but the underlying numbers nevertheless paint him as a different pitcher on the road. His walk rate is still discouraging, but he picks up more whiffs and garners less hard contact on the road, which may be indicative of him changing his plan of attack to suit his environment. He is not as good as the 2.57 road ERA indicates, but he has been a far better pitcher than his overall numbers suggest.

The Stuff

Chatwood throws five different pitches, each of which has a fair bit of moment. It may be a bit disingenuous to call him a true five-pitch guy, though, as his change-up is more of a show-me pitch than anything else, and he doesn’t use it all that often. Take a look:

brooksbaseball-chart

His fastball and sinker velocity ticked up this past season, jumping from the low-90s to sitting comfortably in the mid-90s, which fits the league-wide trend in velocity. And all of those pitches have a great deal of movement, which allows him to induce grounders with all five.

Chatwood boasted healthy whiff rates on his change-up (20.16%), slider (16.9%), and curve (12.9%) last year, which has led some to speculate as to why he doesn’t use his off-speed stuff more often. That curveball is also a groundball generating machine, with 70.4% of those put into play were worm burners. And, while we still have a great deal to learn about the usefulness of spin rate, it’s worth noting that Chatwood’s curveball (4th among starting pitchers) and four-seamer (7th) have elite spin rates, as per Statcast.

Injury History

The reason why Chatwood threw so few innings in 2016 is because he underwent Tommy John surgery in the Summer of 2014, and was on an innings limit as a result. He made just four starts in 2014 and missed all of 2015 as he rehabbed from the procedure. That was the second such surgery of his career – the first came way back in 2005, when he was a 15-year-old pitching for Redlands East Valley High School.

Having two Tommy John surgeries is never a good thing, so caution may be a key word thrown around by any team interested in his services – but he has otherwise been mostly healthy as a professional. He spent time on the disabled list in 2017 with a calf strain, and that’s about it.

Contract Estimate

MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 3-year, $20 MM deal for Chatwood, ranking him as the sixth best starting pitcher on the market (not including Shohei Otani). That feels a bit light for a 28-year-old with a recent history of success, but his ugly overall numbers and twice-repaired elbow may well give some teams pause. The market was light last year, as well, with Rich Hill being the only free agent starter to get a multi-year deal worth $10 MM or more per year.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would go with something closer to 3-years, $30 MM.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

Chatwood is young, he throws hard, his pitches have great movement, and he keeps the ball on the ground – that sounds like the sort of package that the Yankees would salivate over. And, should Otani not come to the Yankees (be it by staying in Japan, or signing elsewhere), I could see him being at or near the top of the team’s list.

That being said, the Yankees are trying to limit payroll, and I don’t know that they’d view Chatwood as the player to invest precious dollars in, given the team’s internal options and potentially cheaper options on the market. The fit in a vacuum is obvious, but it becomes less so when viewed under the totality of it all.

Scouting the Trade Market: Sonny Gray

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Given where they sit in the standings, it seems likely the Yankees will add a starting pitcher before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. The Yankees are one game back in the AL East and 1.5 games up on a wild card spot, so they’re a good weekend away from the division lead and a bad weekend away from not having a postseason spot. There’s a clear need for another starter and the Yankees have already made one big trade. No sense stopping there.

The starter the Yankees have been most connected to these last few weeks is Athletics right-hander Sonny Gray. In fact, earlier this week Mark Feinsand reported the Yanks and A’s were “making progress toward a deal” that would not only bring Gray to New York, but first baseman Yonder Alonso as well. That was reported Tuesday, and we’ve yet to hear anything since, so who knows. The 27-year-old Gray is available though. Let’s see whether he actually makes sense for the up-and-coming Yankees.

Current Performance

Tuesday night’s start was likely Gray’s last with the A’s — he is lined up to start Sunday, though I would be surprised if Oakland lets him make that start — and during that start he allowed four runs (zero earned) in six innings against the Blue Jays. He struck out nine. Gray threw a potential 1-6-3 double play ball into center field, so his own error led to the four unearned runs. Womp womp. Anyway, here are his numbers the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2015 208 2.73 3.45 20.3% 7.1% 52.7% 0.74 .265 .260
2016 117 5.69 4.67 18.2% 8.1% 53.9% 1.38 .372 .325
2017 97 3.43 3.24 23.5% 7.5% 56.7% 0.74 .292 .267

Gray finished third in the AL Cy Young voting behind Dallas Keuchel and David Price in 2015, was hurt and ineffective in 2016, and is back to being pretty great in 2017. He’s been especially good over his last six starts, throwing 39.1 innings with a 1.37 ERA (2.66 FIP).

Two things about Gray. One, he gets a lot of ground balls. Always has. Even last year, when he was terrible overall, Gray’s ground ball rate was well above the league average. And two, Gray’s platoon split is generally pretty small. He actually has a reverse split this year. Point is, he can get lefties out. Lots of ground balls and the ability to neutralize lefties are the skills you want in a right-handed pitcher in Yankee Stadium.

Another thing worth noting: Gray has a reputation for being a big game pitcher. He went toe-to-toe with peak Justin Verlander in Game Two of the 2013 ALDS (box score) — that was the 11th start of his big league career — and also threw a complete game shutout in Game 162 in 2014 (box score), which clinched a postseason spot for the A’s. That was a win or go home game. Even dating back to college, Gray has had a reputation for coming up huge in big games.

Current Stuff

For all intents and purposes, Gray is a four-pitch pitcher with usable fifth and sixth pitches. He’ll sit low-90s and top out at 96-97 mph with his four-seam fastball and sinker, and his two main secondary pitches are a mid-80s slider and low-80s curveball. Gray also throws a low-90s cutter and mid-80s changeup. Those are the fifth and sixth pitches. He’ll throw a few per start, but that’s really it.

The curveball is Gray’s moneymaker. That’s the pitch that got him drafted 18th overall in 2011 and the pitch that allows him to keep lefties in check. He can throw the curve for called strikes and bury it in the dirt for swings and misses. Here’s some video:

Gray throws his two fastballs, the four-seamer and sinker, roughly 62% of the time combined. The curveball and slider are pretty even at 15% each, and then the cutter and changeup (mostly changeup) fill out the rest. That has held pretty constant over the years. Nothing about Gray, neither his pitch selection nor his velocity, has changed following his injuries last year. His stuff has bounced back well.

If you watched all 88 pitches in that video (that was his start on May 24th of this year), you probably noticed Gray lived at the bottom of the zone. He pounds the lower half with his fastballs, and buries the curveball and slider down there too. Gray is listed at 5-foot-10. He’s not a big guy at all. It’s can be tough for short pitchers to get good downward plane, which is why so many of them are fly ball prone (coughChanceAdamscough). Gray’s never had that problem. Here is his 2017 fastball location heat map, via Baseball Savant:

sonny-gray-heat-mapBottom half of the strike zone, right where you want it. On any given day Gray goes out to the mound with two fastballs he locates at the knees, an out-pitch curveball, and a quality slider. And a changeup and cutter for show. This is not some garden variety back-end starter. Gray has already had one Cy Young caliber season and the stuff is there for him to put together more dominant seasons, especially since he is still only 27.

Injury History

Now, the bad news. Gray suffered the first notable injuries of his career last season. He missed two weeks with a right trap strain and then two months with a right forearm strain. Then, this spring, he suffered a right lat strain that caused him to miss April. The trap and lat injuries are kinda scary because a) those muscles are close together, and b) those muscles are close to the shoulder. Forearm strains are often a precursor to elbow problems too.

For what it’s worth, Gray returned from the lat strain in May and has been fine since. No lat problems, no trap problems, no forearm problems, and no elbow problems. That doesn’t make his injury history any less scary, of course. Arm injuries are arm injuries. Maybe the forearm strain will be like Andrew Miller‘s forearm strain — Miller missed a month with a forearm strain in 2015 — and be a true one-time thing. That’s the hope. Either way, this is three pretty significant injuries to the arm/arm area within the last 14 months or so.

Contract Status

This season is the first of Gray’s three years of arbitration eligibility. He’ll remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in both 2018 and 2019 before qualifying for free agency during the 2019-20 offseason. He’s not a rental. Trade for him at the deadline and you get him for two and a half seasons, meaning three potential postseason runs.

Gray will make $3.575M this season, which is surprisingly low first time arbitration salary for a guy with a top three Cy Young finish under his belt. Doug Fister made $4M his first trip through arbitration. Fister’s arbitration salaries went from $4M to $7.2M to $11.4M, so if you’re looking to get an idea of what Gray could make the next two years, that seems like a decent guideline. Also, Gray has two minor league options remaining, not that it really matters.

What Would It Take?

This is where it gets difficult. Pitchers like Gray don’t get traded often, and even when they do get traded, it usually doesn’t happen at midseason. Deals like this tend to wait for the offseason. The Jose Quintana trade was the most notable non-rental pitcher trade since … I guess David Price in 2014, when he went from the Rays to the Tigers?

Because of that, there is no good trade benchmark for Gray, an above-average starter with two and a half years of control. It’s not a matter of me not finding a good benchmark. The benchmark doesn’t exist. Quintana and Cole Hamels were traded three and a half years prior to free agency. Price was traded one and a half years prior to free agency. Rentals? There have been a ton of them. Two and a half years? Nothing. Sigh.

Here is everything we know about the Gray sweepstakes right now:

  • The A’s are prioritizing a young center fielder in trade talks and like Estevan Florial. The Yankees are not against including him a trade package. [Jon Morosi, Mark Feinsand]
  • Oakland is pushing teams for their final bids, and it is believed the Yankees have made the strongest offer. Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Chance Adams, and Justus Sheffield are reportedly off-limits. [Joel Sherman, Feinsand]
  • The A’s have had high-ranking executives, including director of player development Billy Owens, scouting Double-A Trenton and Low-A Charleston. [Morosi, Josh Norris]

In my completely amateur know nothing opinion, the Athletics would not be wrong to ask for a top prospect like Torres or Frazier in a Gray trade. The Yankees insist those guys, as well as their other top close to MLB prospects, are untouchable. Fortunately the Yankees have enough farm system depth that they should be able to swing a trade without those guys.

The big name being bandied about the last few days is Jorge Mateo, who has torn the cover off the ball this last month with Double-A Trenton after being pretty crummy the previous year and a half with High-A Tampa. Building a package around Mateo and Florial doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. In fact, it strikes me as a downright bargain if those guys are the two center pieces. We’re talking about a 27-year-old pitcher under control through 2019 who has already proven he can pitch at a Cy Young level. Those dudes aren’t cheap.

The injuries undoubtedly knock the price down. A healthy Gray would command tippy top prospects. There’s also this: the A’s have made some pretty crummy trades lately. The Josh Donaldson trade is the best example, though the two Jeff Samardzija trades weren’t great either. That the A’s are reportedly seeking a young center fielder tells you they’re prioritizing specific positions rather than simply accumulating the best talent possible. That’s what led to the Donaldson trade being so ridiculous. Long story short: Gray won’t come cheap, but the injuries do drag his price down, plus Oakland’s trade track record is questionable.

Does He Make Sense?

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Yes. There is not a doubt in my mind. Gray is young (27), controllable (through 2019), very good overall (career 3.42 ERA and 3.56 FIP), ground ball heavy (career 54.4%), and able to shut down lefties (career .283 wOBA). And he has a history of performing well in big games. What more could you want? The only negative here is the injuries. That’s it. The stuff and underlying skills are really, really good.

I have no doubts about Gray the pitcher being able to succeed in New York and the AL East. He’s very good and the guy is tough as nails. My only concern is the injuries. That’s all. The lat, trap, and especially the forearm injuries worry me and I assume they worry the teams interested in acquiring him. The Yankees reportedly made a strong offer for Quintana but aren’t going all-out for Gray, presumably because Quintana’s track record of durability is so great.

The way I see it, Gray is riskier than most — you could easily argue Mateo and Florial are riskier than most top 100 prospects — but he also offers more upside than most. The Yankees need pitching beyond this season and Gray is right smack in the prime of his career, so you’re getting peak years about of this guy. It’s almost like he’s a buy low candidate, right? Everyone loves buy low candidates. If the Yankees can build a trade package around Mateo and Florial rather than someone like Torres and Florial, I think Gray’s worth the risk. He could end up looking like a bargain.

Scouting The Trade Market: Lance Lynn

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

The 2017 non-waiver trade deadline is exactly one week away, and already the Yankees have swung a pretty significant seven-player trade with the White Sox that, more than anything, added high-end depth to the bullpen. I know Todd Frazier is the biggest name, but that trade was about Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson. Adding those two has already paid dividends.

With the bullpen addressed, the single biggest item left on the shopping list is a starting pitcher. Michael Pineda is done for the season and Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, and Caleb Smith have combined to start three of the last seven games. No one wants that to continue. Getting another starter is a top priority. You don’t make that trade with the ChiSox only to skimp on the rotation.

One rental starter who could possibly be available prior to the trade deadline is Cardinals righty Lance Lynn. St. Louis isn’t have a great season overall (47-51), though they’re only 4.5 games back in the NL Central, and I don’t think it’s in their DNA to throw in the towel and sell. Lynn being available is far from certain. It’ll probably take a bad week this week. Let’s see whether Lynn is the fit for the Yankees in case the Cardinals do decide trade him away.

Current Stuff

So far this season the 30-year-old Lynn has a 3.30 ERA (4.97 FIP) in 20 starts and 114.2 innings. His strikeout (21.5%) and walk (8.3%) rates are about average, though Lynn has always been fly ball prone (42.9% grounders), and these days that means lots of homers (1.65 HR/9). He’s either going to have to start keeping the ball in the park or continue stranding runners at an above-average 82.4% clip, otherwise that ERA is going up.

As a starter Lynn has always been Bartolo Colon-esque in that he lives and dies with his fastball. So far this season 92.2% of his pitches have been some type of fastball. Either a four-seamer, sinker, or cutter. Here is his pitch selection since moving into the rotation full-time in 2012, via Brooks Baseball:

lance-lynn-pitch-selection

So many fastballs. Sooo many fastballs. And hey, that’s fine. Throwing that many fastballs can work. It has for Lynn for years. He has good velocity (low-90s and touches 96), he can locate, and he mixes in enough changeups and curveballs to keep hitters honest.

Also, keep in mind Lynn is not throwing one fastball over and over. It’s three different fastballs. A straight four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. One stays true, one dives down, and another cuts in. Hitters see a lot of fastballs, though they don’t know which direction they’re heading. It’s not like Lynn is throwing four-seamer after four-seamer, you know?

Here’s a pretty good example of how Lynn uses those three different fastballs. The hitters do not look comfortable because those heaters are moving in all different directions.

Lynn missed the entire 2016 season with Tommy John surgery and he’s come back this year showing basically the same stuff. His velocity is down about half-a-mile an hour from 2015, though it’s not uncommon for a pitcher his age to loss a little something off their fastball over a two-year span, elbow reconstruction or otherwise. Lynn’s stuff is fine. He’s unconventional because he throws so many fastballs, but it works.

Injury History

Like I said, Lynn missed last season with Tommy John surgery. He also missed two months with an oblique strain way back in 2011, which is no big deal. Lynn averaged 189 innings a year from 2012-15 and maxed out at 203.2 innings in 2014, so before his elbow gave out, he was a workhorse. Acquiring a pitcher so soon after Tommy John surgery is inherently risky. There’s no reason to believe Lynn is riskier than any other pitcher in his first full year back from elbow reconstruction.

What Would It Take?

The Cardinals bought out Lynn’s arbitration years with a three-year extension worth $22M back in January 2015. This is the final guaranteed year on the contract — he’s making $7.5M this season — and Lynn will be a free agent after the season. He’s a rental.

I do think the Cardinals would make Lynn the qualifying offer after the season. Getting him back on an expensive one-year deal isn’t the worst thing in the world, and besides, Lynn would probably decline it. He could secure more total dollars on a multi-year deal, though the point is the Cardinals are in position to demand a greater return than the draft pick they’d receive after the season.

Last week I ran through other recent rental starter trades, and based on the benchmarks, the Cardinals shouldn’t have any trouble getting two good prospects for Lynn. Not top prospects like Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier, but good prospects. Someone from the Tyler Wade/Chance Adams/Dillon Tate pool. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Guys like Lynn don’t come that cheap.

Does He Make Sense?

Aside from Yu Darvish, Lynn is probably the best rental available at the trade deadline, assuming he is actually made available at some point. The Cardinals could rip off a bunch of wins this week and decide to keep Lynn and go for it. That’s probably what they’d prefer to do. Also, keep in mind the Cardinals traded lefty Marco Gonzales last week, so they’re down one layer of rotation depth. They might not want to trade even more pitching.

Two things to consider here. One, the Yankees probably really like Lynn’s postseason experience and the fact he was part of the World Series winning team with the Cardinals in 2011. And two, the Yankees don’t rely on the fastball, as Tom Verducci recently wrote. Would they acquire a pitcher who lives and dies with his heater when their team philosophy is to pitch backwards? Perhaps the different look wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Anyway, yes, Lynn makes sense for the Yankees because they have a rotation opening and he’s better than the Mitchells and Cessas and Smiths of the world. They have plenty of prospects to trade, so it’s not like the trade would cripple their farm system. The biggest issue here is outside the Yankees’ control: will the Cardinals sell? I don’t think they want too, and they can justify keeping Lynn given their place in the standings.

Scouting the Trade Market: Trevor Cahill

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After Tuesday’s seven-player trade, the Yankees loudly announced they were buyers. The trade solved many of their issues, but they still have a hole in the back of their rotation with Michael Pineda lost for the season after Tommy John surgery.

A veteran innings eater who can more reliably provide solid innings than Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa appears to be the logical next move for Brian Cashman. One pitcher who could not only eat those innings but potentially do so effectively is Trevor Cahill, the journeyman starter with a 55.1 percent career groundball rate who is currently with the San Diego Padres. On a cheap one-year deal, the 29-year-old righty has a 3.14 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 57 1/3 innings over 10 starts for one of the worst teams in baseball.

Let’s dive into the Friars’ top rotation piece at the present:

Current Performance

In the middle of 2015, it looked like Cahill’s time as a starter was kaput. He’d been dealt to the Braves and had thrown 26 1/3 well-below-average innings before Atlanta DFA’d him. He’d made just three starts and had a 7.52 ERA in 15 total games.

But his career turned when he joined the Cubs late in the season. Used exclusively as a reliever, Cahill became a strikeout machine for the first time in his career while still keeping the ball on the ground as a sinkerballer. He pitched to a 2.61 ERA (4.10 FIP) in Chicago while upping his strikeout rate significantly. This came through an adjustment in his motion and upping the usage of his curveball and changeup.

Cahill turned down teams looking at him as a reliever and took a cheap one-year contract with the Padres, who gave him an opportunity to start and play near his hometown of Oceanside, Calif. It’s paid off big time.

In his 10 starts, he’s been able to translate his strikeout numbers from the bullpen into consistent success in the rotation. He has a 29.5 percent strikeout rate, up more than 10 percent from his last full season as a starter. His 8.3 percent walk rate is near the lowest mark he’s posted as a starter. He’s maintained a GB-to-FB ratio above two for the last three seasons and most of his career, making him ideally suited for a hitter’s haven, let alone one of the largest fields in the league at Petco Park.

Cahill is a true five-pitch pitcher. His four-seam fastball and sinker sit in the low-90s with the sinker being his primary pitch, thrown 37 percent of the time (the lowest rate of his career). Off-speed, he turns to his low-80s, high-70s knuckle curveball, a mid-80s changeup and a mid-80s slider. Each of his pitches has been relatively effective this season, especially the curveball, which rates as one of the best in the game. Check out how he’s able to get swings and misses on all his pitches.

His home/road splits are something of which to be wary. He has a 5.01 ERA away from Petco and you have to wonder whether his solid HR/9 numbers would slide even more at Yankee Stadium. His strikeout and walk rates have mostly held up away from home.

Injury history

Cahill comes with a bit of a checkered injury past. He’s already spent time on the disabled list with two separate injuries. First, he missed 10 days in April with a back strain. He then lost over 1.5 months with a shoulder strain. He’s spent 60 total days on the DL this season. He also missed time in 2013 with a hip contusion.

If you’re looking for positives, the injuries and subsequent missed time could be a blessing in disguise. He hadn’t thrown more than 65 2/3 innings since 2014, so it was unlikely he’d be able to handle 200 innings like he used to.

What would it take?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Mike had a pretty good breakdown of what you can expect a rental starter to cost in his breakdown of Jaime Garcia‘s trade value. Make sure to check that out here.

With Cahill, his cheap contract could make a small difference compared to other rentals. Signed for $1.75 million in the offseason, he has less than $1 million left on his base salary. He earns $250,000 for start No. 15, 20 and 25 this season and he’ll earns a $250,000 bonus if he is traded.

Even with the incentives, he’s one of the cheaper players on the market because of his prove-it contract. The Padres can presumably ask for a slightly larger return than he would normally get, although his injuries could limit his market.

Does he make sense for the Yankees?

Surely. A 29-year-old rental with strong strikeout and groundball rates at Yankee Stadium? Sign me up. Like with Garcia or any rental, the Yankees would get a close look at him for the last few months of the season with eyes towards perhaps re-signing him in the offseason.

You obviously can’t overlook his injuries, but his numbers indicate that a team trading for him could catch lightning in a bottle for the stretch run. His experience in relief makes him slightly more attractive for a team with playoff dreams.

Scouting the Trade Market: Jaime Garcia

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

The trade deadline is roughly a week and a half away now, and already the big pitching trade candidate has been moved. Jose Quintana is a Chicago Cub and the focus has now turned to Sonny Gray. There are plenty of other pitchers on the market too. None have the track record of Quintana or the upside of Gray, but there are pitchers out there ready to be dealt.

Among them is Braves southpaw Jaime Garcia, an impending free agent having an okay season (4.33 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 106 innings). The Braves are not absolutely miserable this season — they came into today 45-46 with a -35 run differential — though they are still rebuilding, and a free agent-to-be like Garcia is a prime piece of trade bait. Does he make any sense for the Yankees? Let’s break it down.

Current Stuff

The just turned 31-year-old Garcia is pitching like his usual self this season in that he’s getting a ton of ground balls (54.7%) and an average-ish number of strikeouts (18.2%). His walk rate (9.0%) is a tad high, though remove the intentional walks and it’s a more manageable 8.1%. That’s right in line with last season (7.7%). Garcia wasn’t very good last year (4.67 ERA and 4.49 FIP) but he was great the year before (2.43 ERA and 3.00 FIP).

Generally speaking, Garcia is a true five-pitch pitcher with two low-90s fastballs (four-seamer and sinker). His go-to secondary pitch is a fading low-to-mid-80s changeup. He also throws a low-80s slider and a loopy mid-70s curveball. The curveball is his least used pitch at 6.4% this year. Garcia throws everything else at least 11% of the time. Here’s some video:

There really has been very little change in Garcia’s stuff since Opening Day 2015. He’s averaging 91.5 mph and topping out at 94.3 mph with his fastballs, he’s throwing the same number of breaking balls and changeups, and his grounder and swing and miss rates are all holding steady. That’s good. Garcia has been same guy for three years now. His performance has fluctuated wildly, though that’s more location relation than stuff related.

Injury History

Garcia’s injury history is very ugly. He’s had Tommy John surgery (September 2008), rotator cuff surgery (May 2013), and surgery to treat Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (July 2014) among all sorts of other nagging issues. Garcia threw only 220.2 innings total from 2012-14 while with the Cardinals. (Weirdly, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak ripped Garcia in 2014 for having his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.)

The injury history is very scary but, to Garcia’s credit, he has been completely healthy since returning from the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery in May 2015. He hasn’t missed a start since. That said, the best predictor of future injury is past injury, and Garcia has had several major arm problems and major arm surgeries in his career. Every pitcher is an injury risk. Garcia is much riskier than most given his injury history.

What Would It Take?

Garcia is a rental and I suppose the Braves could argue he’s a qualifying offer candidate likely to sign a free agent contract in excess of $50M, meaning they want something back equal or greater to the supplemental first round pick they would receive in the offseason. That seems like a real stretch though given his performance and injury history.

Mark Feinsand says a dozen teams have expressed interest in Garcia and that doesn’t surprise me. Pitching is always in demand and Garcia is solid enough despite the injury risk. Ground ball lefties are always a hot commodity. Here are some rental veteran starters who have been traded in recent years:

  • Ivan Nova: Traded for two top 20-30 organizational prospects (Tito Polo and Stephen Tarpley).
  • J.A. Happ: Traded for a top 15 organizational prospect (Adrian Sampson).
  • Dan Haren: Traded for two non-top 30 organizational prospects (Elliot Soto and Ivan Pineyro).
  • Mike Leake: Traded for an organizational top ten prospect (Keury Mella) and a young big leaguer (Adam Duvall).
  • Scott Kazmir: Traded for an organizational top ten prospect (Jacob Nottingham) and an organizational top 20-30 prospect (Daniel Mengden).

The Braves will presumably push for a Leake/Kazmir package while interested teams counter with a Haren package. Leake had a much longer track record of being a league average innings eater. Kazmir had an ugly injury history like Garcia, but also a much better recent performance. Nova and Happ were having terrible seasons at the time of their trades, and Haren was a veteran guy at the end of the line.

The Kazmir trade feels like the best benchmark to me even though he was lights out with the Athletics (2.38 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 109.2 innings) before being traded to the Astros. Kazmir was an injury risk then like Garcia is now, and both offered the potential for above-average performance. And maybe the Kazmir trade is a reason to stay away from Garcia. Kazmir had a 2.38 ERA (3.16 FIP) before the trade and a 4.17 ERA (5.19 FIP) after the trade.

Anyway, using the Kazmir trade as a benchmark, we’re talking about a top 10 and a top 30 prospect for Garcia. Not all farm systems are created equal, however. A top ten prospect in the Yankees system is at worst a borderline top 100 guy. The Astros had a very strong farm system at the time of the Kazmir trade, though it wasn’t as good as New York’s is now. A Yankees equivalent to Nottingham and Mengden is something like Billy McKinney and Ian Clarkin.

As unexciting as Garcia may be, I think there will be enough competition for him that the price gets driven up and the Braves wind up acquiring two pretty nice prospects for him. The Yankees have a lot of nice prospects. So many that they’re probably going to end up losing some for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft and on waivers through various other 40-man roster moves in the offseason. Turning some of those guys into a rental starter like Garcia seems worthwhile.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

(Daniel Shirey/Getty)
(Daniel Shirey/Getty)

The Yankees have needed another starter pretty much all season even though there was really no way to squeeze another starter into the rotation. Michael Pineda‘s injury takes care of that. There’s an opening in the rotation and Garcia would a fine — albeit unexciting — stopgap. Ground ball heavy lefties will always have a place on the Yankees pitching staff thanks to the Yankee Stadium short porch.

The question is are the Yankees open to trading prospects for a rental when they’re slipping out of the race, or would they rather stick in-house with the kids? Bryan Mitchell started last night and Luis Cessa starts tonight. Brian Cashman said Chance Adams could get a shot at some point too. The thing is, those kids have workload limits, and pitching is one of those things you’d rather have too much of than not enough.

There’s also this: Garcia would be auditioning for a rotation spot next year. Aside from Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees have no idea what next season’s starting rotation will look like, and Garcia is one of those lower cost free agents they could target to fill out the rotation and stay under the luxury tax threshold. The trade would give the Yankees and their staff a chance to evaluate him up close. That’s not nothing.

For me, Garcia makes perfect sense for the Yankees. He shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to acquire, he wouldn’t tie up long-term roster or payroll space, and there’s at least a chance at excellence. You probably won’t get it, but Garcia has had some very good seasons in his career. In a 12-start sample, who knows what’ll happen? If the Yankees are going to go after a rental starter rather than a long-term piece like Sonny Gray, Garcia may be the best option.