Fire Up the Hot Stove!
The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series, claiming their 4th championship since 2004. Congratulations to them. But now begins the long winter of baseball’s offseason, and every other team’s jockeying for position to knock them off.
The Yankees had a good season. Despite a rash of injuries to key players and underperformance from others, they still won 100 games and the wild card. Unfortunately, Boston won 108. So how do you improve what is already a really good team by 9 more wins? That’s the question that Brian Cashman will have to answer over the next 5 months.
It’s no secret where the Yankees need to improve. The principal difference between the top two teams in the AL East (and Houston, who won 103 games in the West) is the starting rotations. Boston and Houston had much better starting pitching than the Yankees all season, and the result showed in the final standings and in the playoffs. What’s more, the Yankees are looking at losing 3 of their starting pitchers to free agency. Boston has 1 and Houston has 2 pitchers set to hit the market.
But the offseason challenges don’t end there. Those 3 pitchers are part of at least 11 players (and possibly 12) who could leave the Bronx for other green pastures. It also doesn’t include the fate of SP Sonny Gray, an ace pitcher who has proven to have Ed Whitson disease. In other words, Cashman & Co. could well be looking at replacing 52% of the roster over the winter, while maintaining relevancy. Now add in injuries to SS Didi Gregorius, an uncertain situation at first base, an overcrowded outfield and perhaps the best free agent class in history, and this has the making of being one of the most entertaining hot stove seasons in a long, long time.
Starting Pitching: Only two starters are guaranteed to return, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Despite Severino’s well-documented struggles in the second half last season, I believe he will bounce back perfectly fine next year. His issues stem from two sources, I think: first was a hangover effect from the increased workload in 2017 (it isn’t an uncommon occurrence in baseball). The other is that multiple other teams said Sevy has a habit of tipping his pitches. I don’t care what you throw, if the other guy knows what’s coming he can hit it. Tanaka has managed to pitch his entire career with an elbow ligament that threatens to snap apart on every pitch. Will this be the year it finally does? Suffice it to say, the Yankees need at least 5 more quality starting options before breaking camp.
The most intriguing possibility is the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. The Giants look poised to engage in a total rebuild, and Bumgarner is a quality ace with a proven record of pitching his best when the lights are brightest. If they make him available, the Yankees should go all in on him. Sonny Gray could be the centerpiece of this trade. Even though he demonstrated a severe case of the yips when pitching at Yankee Stadium, he did pitch to a 3.17 ERA and 1.155 WHIP on the road, and his best years came across SF bay in Oakland. Both Bumgarner and Gray are 29 years old, and both remain under team control through 2019. On paper, it’s a good match.
Other trade targets could include Zack Greinke, Tyler Chatwood, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Zach Wheeler. As for free agents, everyone expects the Yanks to go hard after Patrick Corbin, an NY kid who had a breakout season in 2018. Also, expect the team to work hard to resign JA Happ, and if that fails, then to turn to beg CC Sabathia to come back. The other top FA options include Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Nathan Eovaldi, and Gio Gonzales. There’s also the possibility Clayton Kershaw opts out of his contract, and Cole Hamels will probably be bought out of his. There is also a bevy of kids in the high minors who can serve as either trade or depth pieces. There will certainly be plenty to choose from, which means none of us should ever be subjected to the “Luis Cessa Experience” again.
Bullpen: The Yankees rode a historic bullpen to those 100 wins last season. The “four closers” (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, and David Robertson) combined for 211 innings, 44 saves, a 1.066 WHIP and 320 strikeouts. Now, Robertson and Britton are both scheduled to hit free agency, and it seems likely that given the dearth of good closers in MLB these days, both will be able to find jobs as the closer for a new team.
Fortunately, quality bullpen arms seem to be the one constant the Yankees farm system churns out. Look for kids like Chance Adams, Tommy Kahnle, Steven Tarpley, JP Feyereisen, Cole Coshow, and Ben Heller to get a chance to fill in. At the same time, you can expect Chad Green and Jonathan Holder to move up in the pecking order. All in all, this is the one part of the team the Yankee brain trust doesn’t need to think too hard over, nor do they need to worry about allocating lots of money to fix it.
Catching: The Yankees know they’ll be returning the same catchers as in 2018. Gary Sanchez will be the starter, backed up by Austin Romine. The good news is that Romine has rounded out into a quality backup backstop, the kind of guy you can play 85-90 times a year and not get a headache from it.
The bad news is Sanchez was one of the most disappointing players for the Yankees last year. A combination of injuries, bad luck, and attitude contributed to what was easily the young catcher’s worst season. If he can turn it around (and the talent that nearly won him a ROY in a half season is still there), the Yankees have a building block. If not, they have a decision to make. But that looks to be something for next offseason, not this one.
Infield: Perhaps no area of the team will require more attention than the infield. As mentioned, Didi Gregorius injury in the last playoff game will have him sitting until at least September of 2019, leaving a huge hole at shortstop. Miguel Andujar may well win this year’s ROY, but his defense was among the league’s worst at 3B. Gleyber Torres was as good as advertised at second base, but Greg Bird disappeared among more injuries and anemic production and may be facing the end of his road. Luke Voit, former St. Louis castoff, came over and provided a needed boost at first base – but can the Yankees count on him to be the answer? They tried to build Bird’s career from a cameo in 2015 – and three years later we’re still waiting.
Of course, the name on everyone’s list of infielders is Manny Machado. The erstwhile Oriole and Dodger may have played his way out of the Bronx with his postseason antics, though. Nobody argues with the talent, but Manny has demonstrated that he is very much a selfish player. That’s an attitude that simply will not mesh with the Yankee way. One thing this generation of Steinbrenners does not want is a return to the Bronx Zoo days of the 1970’s.
So, what to do? I suggest the Yankees get bold. The other mega free agent available is Bryce Harper. I suggest the Yankees sign Harper, but not for the outfield. To play first. Yes, you heard that right. his left-handed bat will help balance the lineup, his dynamism will add an athletic component that was largely missing last year and while there have been questions about his maturity in the past, his down year last year came largely from him not trying to put up huge numbers but help his decimated team win. Next, I would move Andujar into a 3B/OF role with the idea of him taking the bulk of LF reps by the next All-Star break. Then, I would go after this year’s Swiss Army knife player, Marwin Gonzalez, primarily to play short, but also to get reps at 3B and as needed elsewhere. Once Gregorius is back, Gonzalez moves permanently to third and Andujar becomes the regular left fielder.
Those moves also free up Bird and/or Voit to become available in a trade for a starting pitcher, where they might have more value to the Yankees. Depth would also be improved, as the Yankees have plenty of well-regarded utility types down on the farm, led by #16 overall prospect Thairo Estrada, along with Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes.
Outfield: What do you do when you have 5 former All-Stars, and a consensus top 50 prospect, for three positions?
That is the dilemma facing the Yankee brass when it comes to the outfield. Suffice it to say none of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, or Giancarlo Stanton are going anywhere. Look for all three to reprise their roles in right field, center field and as the primary DH, respectively.
That leaves at least three (and if the Yanks adopt my Andujar plan, four) players to squeeze into one spot. So how to do this?
First is through attrition but in different ways.
Brett Gardner has patrolled left field for the Yanks since 2008. He is the last of the 2009 champions still on the team, but the Yankees have until Wednesday to decide whether to exercise the buyout or renew the contract for $12.5 million. Here’s the thing: how much do you pay for intangibles, like leadership, hustle, and grit? Because that’s about all Gardy has left in the tank. He still wants to play – and he thinks he still can – but the results are no longer showing up on the field. My guess is we’ve seen the last of Gardner in Pinstripes until a future Old-Timer’s Day.
The other player whose time has passed is Jacoby Ellsbury, the incredibly disappearing and enigmatic center fielder. I realize the Yankees don’t want to admit signing him was a terrible mistake, and I know they don’t want to eat the remaining $47.5 million on his contract. But here’s the thing: the guy can’t stay healthy enough to even take batting practice, he can’t play anywhere but center (and that poorly), can’t throw, can’t steal bases anymore. His contract is a sunk cost. Better to pay him to go away then pay him to take up an even more valuable roster spot, especially now that the team is finally under the salary cap.
That leaves Clint Frazier as the fourth outfielder. The uber-prospect suffered through a dismal season last year, stemming from a concussion suffered near the end of Spring Training. In limited action (54 games) in the minors, Frazier didn’t show too many ill effects, hitting .305 with a .950 OPS. He should be fine in 2019.
So, here’s my projected (wished for?), waaaay-too early Opening Day 2019 roster:
CF: Aaron Hicks
RF: Aaron Judge
1B: Bryce Harper
DH: Giancarlo Stanton
C: Gary Sanchez
3B: Miguel Andujar
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
LF: Clint Frazier
2B: Gleyber Torres
UT: Tyler Wade
UT: Ronald Torreyes
IF: Luke Voit
SP: Luis Severino
SP: Madison Bumgarner
SP: JA Happ
SP: Masahiro Tanaka
SP: Patrick Corbin
CL: Aroldis Chapman
RP: Dellin Betances
RP: Chad Green
RP: Jonathon Holder
RP: Tommy Kahnle
RP: Chance Adams
Play Yankee GM!
The other day, I posted some thoughts on potential Yankees front office changes (and only got half my projections right!). But before the hot stove season can really begin, first you need to clean out the oven. So here we go: which of these players, all free agents or potential trade candidates, do you keep for 2018? And which ones would you say good-bye to? Keep in mind, you need to get the team’s payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. Ready?
Masahiro Tanaka, Starting pitcher (13-12, 4.79 ERA, 178 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Let Him Walk Away
Tanaka is an unusual case. For starters, he’s not actually a free agent – yet. His contract does allow him to opt out, though, and most everyone expects him to, despite 2017 easily being his worst MLB season. Although he struck out more batters per inning than at any point in his career, he allowed more baserunners and home runs than at any point in his career, too. Then there is the well-known matter of his damaged UCL. It’s held up well over the past 2 1/2 years, but he is only one awkward pitch from needing Tommy John surgery. Tanaka proved during September and the Yankees postseason run that he can still be a dominating pitcher. But should he opt out, that means he’s looking for a raise on the $67 million he would get over the next three seasons. With youngsters Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo and the like ready, or nearly ready, for their time in pinstripes, the verdict on this is easy.
CC Sabathia, Starting Pitcher (14-5, 3.69 ERA, 148 2/3IP)
Verdict: 1 year, $15 million contract
Since coming to the Yankees in 2009, Sabathia has successfully transformed himself from fireballing lefty to crafty lefty. Injuries and Father Time have taken their toll, but his 9 years in Pinstripes have been memorable. Perhaps more important than his pitching acumen, however, is the respect he garners in the clubhouse and the mentoring role he’s taken on with the younger pitchers. I think CC can match his Yankees career averages in wins (13) and ERA+ (114). Combine the on field production with the off the field intangibles, and resigning him makes sense. Helpful in this case are that CC has said he wants to play one more year, wants to finish his career in the Bronx and isn’t looking for a giant payday, and this makes even more sense.
Michael Pineda, Starting Pitcher (8-4, 4.39 ERA, 96 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Wave Good-bye!
Pineda’s Yankee career can best be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Few pitchers in the last 20 years have matched his stuff, along with his ability to limit walks and strike out opposing hitters, yet get hit as hard and as often as him. When the Yankees acquired him for Jesus Montero (remember him), it looked like a blockbuster trade. Instead, both Seattle and the Yankees got burned by this one. But last season looked like Pineda had finally turned the corner. He was pitching well, and then *BOOM* his elbow gave way. Ordinarily, a pitcher with his type of injury and talent might be offered a two year, “make good” contract. But this Yankees team has enough pitching depth in the minors that blocking any of them for a questionable player is, well, stupid.
Jaime Garcia, Starting/Relief Pitcher (5-10, 4.41 ERA, 157IP overall; 0-3, 4.82 ERA, 37 IP w/ Yankees)
Verdict: Don’t let the door hit you…
The Yankees acquired Garcia primarily because they wanted a pitcher to absorb innings at the back of the rotation. Coming down the stretch last year, surprising rookie Jordan Montgomery was approaching his innings limit and the brass figured Garcia could help out in that department. The epitome of a journeyman (the Yankees were his third team in a week), Garcia failed to live up to even the modest expectations the brass had for him. He averaged less than 5 innings per start and wound up taxing the bullpen; those extra innings pitched by Yankee relievers down the stretch might well have been part of the reason they ran out of gas in the LCS. This one is a no-brainer.
Todd Frazier, 3B/1B, (.213/.344/.428, 27 HR, 76 RBI overall; .222/.365/.423, 11 HR, 32 RBI with Yankees)
Verdict: Parting is such sweet sorrow
Of all the Yankees free agents, this one may be the hardest decision. I think the Toddfather won over Yankee fans with his enthusiasm, solid glove work, clutch hits and leadership. Acquiring him was one of the best deadline moves the Yankees have made in a long time, and it’s doubtful they would have made the playoff run they did without him. The problem is, he plays a position where the Yanks have depth and youngsters who profile as a serious offensive threats in Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird. Further, Frazier’s high strikeout tendencies make him a lousy bench option – and the Yankees already have a player with a similar profile already under contract in Chase Headley. It’s conceivable the Yankees might leave Andujar in the minors for another season, which would open a spot for Frazier. But would he take a one-year deal when he’s already 32? Probably not, especially when next year he would be faced with entering the free agent market with Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado ahead of him.
Matt Holliday, DH/OF, (.231/.316/.432, 19 HR, 64 RBI)
Verdict: Thanks, but good-bye
The 37 year old veteran gave the Yankees a serious boost in the first half of the season, but then age and injuries caught up with him and Holliday was a non-factor in the second half. He’s a had a good career, but Holliday is looking at the end of the road. I can’t see the Yankees retaining his services, not when he can’t play a position in the field anymore and the DH spot will likely be used as partial days off for the other players.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Outfield (.264/.348/.402, 7 HR, 22SB) Signed through 2020; $68 million owed
Verdict: Trade him. Please.
Arguably the worst free agent signing the Yankees have made in the last 20 years, it is time for the Yankees to move Ellsbury. Once, his speed and defense made up for his below average hitting, but 2017 saw his his ability to track down fly balls regress to league average, and teams ran at will on his weak throwing arm. There’s still some speed and on-base ability, tools which might be of interest to some teams who can use him as a DH and occasional center fielder. The contract is onerous, as it gives Ellsbury a guaranteed payday until he’s 38. But the Yankees should willingly eat some it to make room for up-and-coming young outfielders like Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial.
Brett Gardner, Outfield (.264/.350/.423, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 23 SB) Signed through 2018; $13.5 million owed
Verdict: Career Yankee!
Every year, Brett Gardner’s name boils up on the hot stove. And every year, Yankee brass does the smart thing and doesn’t trade him. Yes, Gardy is entering his age 34 season, the same as Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, he isn’t the flat-out speed demon he was 8 years ago. If Gardner’s entire game was built around speed, that would be problematic. Fortunately for the Yankees, his game is multi-faceted. Beyond that, Gardner’s intangibles – his hustle, leadership and gritty play – are irreplaceable on a team that will feature a lot of youth.
Chase Headley, 3B/1B (.273/.352/.406, 12 HR, 61 RBI) Signed through 2018, $13 million owed
Verdict: One last hurrah
When you look in the dictionary for the definition of “league average,” Chase Headley’s picture pops up. Now entering his age 34 season, Headley is no longer truly a starting corner infielder, but he’s serviceable enough that he can serve as a back-up at either corner. Odds are the Yankees will break camp with Headley starting at 3B, but by midseason he looks to resume the role he filled this past season during the second half as Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres should be in the Bronx by then. Every successful team needs players like Headley: experienced role players who can fill in when needed, don’t grouse about their role and can be an effective bat off the bench. Also in his favor is that his contract is league average, too. He would be a hard player to replace.
Starlin Castro, 2B (.300/.338/.453, 16 HR, 63 RBI) Signed through 2019, $23 million owed
Verdict: Trade bait
Starlin Castro is only entering his age 28 season, is a lifetime .282 hitter and has already accumulated 1,280 career hits. So why dangle him as trade bait? Two words: Gleyber Torres. It’s not that Castro is a bad player, in fact, the Yankees should be able to get a decent return for him. But Torres almost made it to the Bronx lost year. Only a freak injury derailed him. If he doesn’t break camp with the big club, he will certainly be in Pinstripes by June.
Ok, that’s my take. I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section!
Where Art Thou, Brian?
It’s time to take a break from politics for a moment and concentrate on that other topic of extreme national importance: Baseball.
Specifically, the only team that really matters to the sport: the New York Yankees. Because let’s face it, whether you live in Alaska or New York, the Yankees are the team that drives MLB. They’re kind of like Barack Obama. You either love them or hate them, but you can’t ignore them. The last thing MLB needs is for their premier team, the one playing in the $1 billion stadium in the largest media market in the world, is to be irrelevant. Remember how wonderfully well the sport fared the last time the Yankees were irrelevant, about 25 years ago? The team in Montreal folded. The Twins and Marlins almost disappeared. Attendance and fan interest waned across the land.
Well, I hate to break the news to MLB, but the Yankees are fast approaching the point of not mattering again. After two consecutive years of not being contenders (and really, the last time they put a serious contender on the field was in 2010), the only news coming out of the south Bronx is that the Human Steroid is attempting to salvage the $60 million owed on his contract. Baseball doesn’t need any more of Alex Rodriguez‘ shenanigans, not after 2+ years of his mea culpas and Fred Astaire impersonations.
What MLB does need is for the Yankees GM, Brian Cashman, to stop sleeping and actually get to work rebuilding the team. The Yankees entered this offseason needing a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also had to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
As of this moment, they need a shortstop, a second baseman, a right handed outfielder, and at least two starting pitchers. They also have to keep the back end of their brilliant bullpen together.
This is a nice way of saying that so far, Brian Cashman has done absolutely nothing to address the many roster holes left from the last 3 seasons of roster disasters. That might not be so bad in what is a declining American League East, except the American League isn’t declining any longer. In case you’ve missed it, Boston has done everything imaginable at this point to improve their club. Toronto has done an equally admirable job of improving. Tampa Bay has done what it needed to address the ennui that inevitably set in after a few overly successful seasons. Baltimore ran away with the division last year and made it to the ALCS.
It’s not that the Yankees need to go crazy on retooling, a la the Red Sox, and throw nearly $200 million at older players. But signing a Jon Lester or Max Scherzer would look pretty nice. It’s not that they need to swing a trade for Josh Donaldson, like Toronto, but a Ben Zobrist would look pretty good in pinstripes. It’s not that they need to to pry Andrew Miller away from Baltimore, but they can’t let David Robertson become a repeat of the Robinson Cano debacle from last year.
The Yankees made splashy, but ineffective moves last offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player, but wasn’t really needed – after all, Brett Gardner was rounding out into a solid center fielder with the same skill set. Carlos Beltran would have been a terrific signing – a decade ago. Brian McCann was a nice addition, but questions about how well the laid-back Southerner handles New York will continue until he proves he can. Besides, had Cashman not balked at resigning all-star catcher Russell Martin a few seasons ago, McCann wouldn’t be here.
In short, the front office pogues at MLB need to light a fire under Cashman’s butt. I say that, because it’s becoming more evident with each passing season that the Steinbrenner family can talk all they want about how they share their late patriarch’s desire to win, but the only thing they really care about is the money they’re making from their cash cow. But baseball as a whole needs the Yankees to be more than Hal’s personal ATM. As such, they need to tell Cashman to do something, anything. The roster is too bloated with over-the-hill player on bad contracts? Fine. Gut the roster. Pay off the old guys, bring up the kids for a season or two and start over. It might not be a win-now strategy but it would at least lend itself to some excitement in the Bronx.
Or if that isn’t palatable, then return to the “Steinbrenner Way” and aggressively pursue the best available talent. Go crazy, offer Lester and Scherzer $200 million each. Back up a Brinks truck to Nelson Cruz‘ door. Give Asdrubal Cabrera his own lane across the GWB. Heck, give the A’s everyone not named Gary Sanchez in exchange for Jeff Samardzija.
But whatever you do, don’t just stand pat – or even worse, let your own players walk away. This journey into nothingness does absolutely nothing for the Yankees or baseball.