As a result of the Brian Cashman’s moves in December (trading Starlin Castro for Giancarlo Stanton; trading Chase Headley for Jabari Blash), the Yankees find themselves without a credible veteran presence at second and third base. The current starters would likely come from a trio of rookies: Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade, along with the possibility of utility player Ronald Torreyes of earning a starting shot in Spring Training. The question is, can a team hoping to reach the World Series in October live to get there while playing multiple rookies?
Last season, the team won 91 games with Castro and Headley playing regularly. In addition to breakout seasons from the two Aarons (Judge and Hicks), it has to be noted that the Yankees received above normal production from both of the since departed infielders. Headley posted a 100 OPS+, an advance over the 94 he had posted over the previous three seasons. Castro provided a 106 OPS+, even more substantially above the 97 aggregate for his previous three years than Headley’s sudden offensive output. Yet, despite those improvements in offense over previous years, both players were essentially league average. Defensive metrics weren’t kind to both players, either: Headley posted a -11 DRS at third, while Castro limped to -8 DRS at second. Really, replacing these two former Yankees with simply league average production, both offensively and defensively, would actually mark an improvement from 2017.
Another factor to consider is the Yankees well and often stated desire to drop below the $197 million salary tax threshold and how any available veterans would fit into that framework. Let’s take a look at some of the names who’ve been rumored to possibly heading to the Yankees.
- Josh Harrison, Pirates: Harrison provides adequate defense at both second and third, along with the ability to play both outfield corners. He also brings better than average contact skills, striking out in only 15% of his plate appearances over the past three seasons. He’s also in the last year of his contract, owed a little under $12 million (including team buyouts of options), which might be doable. But he’s only managed a 95 OPS+ over the last three years, and Pittsburgh will want a decent prospect return for one of their more valuable players.
- Todd Frazier, Free Agent: The Yankees have familiarity with Frazier, having swung a deadline trade for him last year. I think many Yankee fans would love to see Frazier return, as he proved to not only be an excellent defender, but gave the team a much needed lift in both the clubhouse and the lineup. He also brings some defensive versatility, although metrics aren’t kind to his glovework at first base. But Frazier is looking for a multi-year contract, will be entering his age 32 season and while he has averaged a 110 OPS+ and 34 homers over the last three seasons, his production is already declining. It’s hard to see him agreeing to take a pay cut from the $15 million he earned last year on a short term contract, and I doubt the Yankees are looking to make a long term commitment to a player who’s shown declining production.
- Mike Moustakas, Free Agent: By all accounts, Moustakas would bring many of the same team leadership traits as Frazier. He’s also three years younger and profiles as better offensive threat than Frazier, having averaged a 117 OPS+ over the past three years with his production on an upswing. No doubt his lefty power would play well in Yankee Stadium and provide a valuable counterweight to the Yankees predominately right handed line-up. While his defense isn’t quite the caliber of Frazier or Harrison, nor does he provide any defensive versatility, he also isn’t a liability with the glove at third. In short, he would be a massive upgrade over Headley. But he is represented by Scott Boras, the one agent who’s known for extracting maximum contracts for his players. A 6 year, $120 million contract for Moustakas seems reasonable, but such a contract would blow apart the Yankees budget.
- Manny Machado, Orioles: This one strikes me as far-fetched. It’s arguable that he is the best third baseman in the game today. Even if the Yankees could somehow convince the Orioles to trade their best player within the division, there are a couple of additional roadblocks. First, Machado wants to return to shortstop, his original position – but the Yankees already have an all-star caliber shortstop, who also happens to be a team leader, in Didi Gregorius. Second, Machado is in the last year of his contract and is widely expected to receive a contract next year that would dwarf Giancaralo Stanton’s. While I suspect the Yankees could make Machado a very happy third baseman by giving him a 10 year, $400 million contract extension (not unreasonable, no matter how crazy that sounds), that would absolutely blow away any hopes of getting back under the salary cap this year.
- Jed Lowrie, A’s: To me, giving up prospects for Lowrie would be a waste of resources. The veteran is entering his age 34 season, has had trouble staying on the field and only sports a league average bat (102 OPS+). While he is capable of playing third, second or short, the only position he’s played decently over recent seasons is second. The only positive he brings to the conversation is that he’s only owed $8 million on an expiring contract.
- Yangveris Solarte: Solarte broke into the majors with the Yankees in 2014 and became an immediate feel-good story. The he was traded (ironically, for Chase Headley) midseason and since then has been, well, Chase Headley. While Solarte can play third, second or first, his glovework hovers between statuesque and terrible while only wielding a 105 OPS+. The only positive he brings to the equation is he won’t reach free agency until 2020, but that seems like something that would be more useful to a team like the Marlins than the Yankees.
So, back to the Yankees in-house options. Torres is the big name here. He is currently the second-ranked prospect in all of professional baseball and, despite only being 21 years old, seemed ticketed to making his major league debut last year. Nobody has much doubt about his talent level. The questions regard seasoning; he only has 96 AAA at bats and 139 in AA. Not even 300 professional at bats in the two highest major league levels would mean a lot of learning in the major leagues. Not that a player with Torres’ talent level is incapable of making that jump; after all, the Red Sox Rafael Devers played extremely well with similar minor league experience before coming up. A bigger question might be his defense, and again strictly from an experience standpoint. To date, Torres only has 83 professional innings at second base, which would be his presumed position in the Bronx. Again, it’s not a question of talent. But a second baseman who has only turned two double plays in his life poses a lot of questions about how well he can handle the position.
Andujar may be the most intriguing player in the bunch. Originally signed in 2012, he finally started to put it all together in 2016. Last year was something of a breakout year for him. Most scouts aren’t worried about his ability to hit major league pitching (in a one game call-up, he went 3-4 with 4 RBI). Rather, the questions surround the third baseman’s ability to field his position. However, it isn’t a question of physical tools. Andujar has above average arm strength and range. Rather, he has a troubling tendency to make mental errors and rush plays, which have contributed to a subpar .917 career fielding percentage. It should be noted that his defense has been steadily improving over each of the past three seasons.
Wade rode the Scranton Shuttle more than any other Yankees prospect last season, managing to get into 30 games with the big club. He is the most versatile player on this list, able to play 7 positions. While he undeniably flopped in the majors last year, it should also be noted he entered the season as the Yankees #17 prospect and was scheduled to play his first full season in AAA. He brings an interesting mix of offensive skills to the table, with consistent doubles power (that might translate into a few more homers with experience) and blinding speed.
Finally, there’s Torreyes. He’s spent the last two seasons as the Yankees utility player, playing second, third, short and taking a few turns in the outfield. While he’s one of those guys you love to root for (and the shortest man to play baseball not named Altuve), there’s a reason he’s been a utility player and not a starter. While he plays numerous positions passably, he isn’t terrific at any of them. As for his offensive skills, that career 81 OPS+ says about all you need to know.
My guess is that while a veteran infielder certainly makes some sense, it isn’t an area of absolute need for these Yankees. If something falls into their laps, terrific. But I don’t see them jumping into a bidding war for any of the available free agents, and I don’t see them going crazy to make a deal for any of the trade candidates. I suspect the season will open with Andujar at third, Torres at second and Torreyes retaining his utility role, with Wade in Scranton to work on his game. By midseason, should either of the youngsters find themselves floundering, the same resources the Yankees have available now will be available then. And odds are, the same cast of available options will be there, as well.
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!