This is my 368th post at Views from 314ft and it is, unfortunately, my last. I have a new job where I won’t be able to write about the Yankees on a regular basis, so my time with this wonderful site must come to an early end.
When we came together to create Views from 314ft in April and May, I felt a bubbling excitement as a writer.
Working for Views was a chance to explore the idiosyncrasies and minutia that I love about baseball while taking on the responsibilities as one of the site’s head writers. Every day, I strove to unlock key insights into the Yankees’ organization and their players while having fun in the process; You as the readers can judge me on the first part, but I know I succeeded with the latter.
Interacting with the readership and molding the site to your anticipations and demands has been a blast. I tried to both give you what you expected while trying to figure out the topics you didn’t even know you wanted, hitting a level of Yankees-specific analysis that we felt was missing on the baseball internet.
In the process of working to make this site a reality and then keep it moving along, I developed friendships with the rest of our staff and I know they won’t miss a beat in my absence. I’ve learned plenty from my colleagues and can’t thank Randy, Derek, Bobby, Matt and Jonny enough for bearing with me in this journey and obliging me the opportunity to come along with them.
As in April, my deepest gratitude to the folks at River Avenue Blues for taking a chance on me a few years ago and allowing me to contribute to that site. It was my first chance to write about the Yankees and Views wouldn’t have been possible without RAB’s legacy, influence and support.
The backbone of Views remains with my exit stage left. From Derek’s detailed analysis to Bobby’s tireless work to Randy’s passionate posts I wish I could emulate to Matt’s reliable and fun Sunday posts (and Jonny’s pinch-hitting for the occasional Saturday), this site will be as strong as ever. There are countless articles I wish I could have written for Views (one being a World Series recap), but those guys will have the opportunity to do so in my stead. I’m glad to have been a part of it and I’ll simply move from writer to avid reader.
If you want occasional exclamations of joy about baseball, Celtics basketball or Carly Rae Jepsen’s entire catalog, you can follow me on Twitter if you haven’t already made that mistake. Otherwise, goodbye for now!
If Spring Training stats mattered, Greg Bird would be a superstar.
I distinctly remember coming into Opening Day 2017 believing more than ever that Bird was going to break through. He’d missed a full season with shoulder surgery after his eye-opening debut, but now he was healthy and ready to go. He homered seemingly every day and was the future, along with Gary Sanchez.
But with a week to go in Grapefruit League play, an injury struck. From there, it was a now-familiar story. Bird swung through hittable fastballs, lost his approach at the plate and was soon on the injured list.
In 2018, he didn’t make it through a week of the spring before suffering an injury and his debut came on May 26. His 2019 spring was a reasonable facsimile of 2017, and he similarly couldn’t make it through April despite finally coming off a full and healthy offseason.
In his five years as a Major League player, Greg Bird rarely, if ever, caught a break. His shoulder and feet let him down, eroding his talent during each of his opportunities to secure a long-term role. That’s why he was ultimately surpassed by Luke Voit and Mike Ford, and why he’s all but assured of playing for another organization next spring.
We saw the potential. Before he even reached the Majors, he was the Arizona Fall League MVP, a prospect with a limitless bat. When Mark Teixeira went down with a broken leg, Bird ran with the opportunity and was the Yankees’ best hitter as they chased a postseason berth. Remember when he gave the Yankees’ a crucial win in Toronto with a three-run homer? I sure do.
After his debut season left Yankee fans wanting more, they had to wait another 18 months as his nagging shoulder injury required surgery, the first of his many MLB ailments.
With Chris Carter’s limp bat and glove, Bird had every chance to star when he came back. His foot wouldn’t cooperate. The season was almost lost entirely, but Bird showed just enough to earn a postseason roster spot and the starting first base gig.
You’d be forgiven if your belief in Bird was wavering by then. The tabloids hadn’t been kind to him and his average was well below the Mendoza line.
But Bird was ready for that postseason. He put the Yankees ahead for good with a single in the Wild Card Game, then homered twice in the ALDS. His second homer was the most important of his career. In a scoreless tie, against the best left-handed reliever in baseball, Bird lived up to the moment with an unforgettable blast.
Though Bird would homer in ALCS Game 1, his impact on that series would come with his lack of foot speed, getting thrown out at the plate twice in crucial sequences.
And once the optimism of October wore off, so did Bird’s welcome. He never again hit well enough to stave off the cavalcade of players the Yankees threw at first base, and his injuries precluded a challenge to Voit or Ford for the past two seasons.
Bird can now elect to go to free agency and he should get another chance, perhaps his last chance, to make good on the promise of yesteryear. We held onto our faith in Bird, and only in March did it pay off.
The Yankees make the 40-man roster protection deadline an event last night by adding over a half-dozen players and jettisoning some big names to make room for them. ICYMI, here’s the summary of their moves:
Added: Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Estevan Florial, Nick Nelson, Miguel Yajure, Brooks Kriske DFA’d: Nestor Cortes Jr., Greg Bird Released: Jacoby Ellsbury
Here are my thoughts on the whole sequence of moves, starting with who the Yankees added:
It’s well-known how electrifying Deivi can be, and he nearly earned a spot on the roster last September. With the 40-man spot secured, he could get strong consideration for the Opening Day roster in 2020, though it’s more likely he gets further reps in Triple-A after he struggled with the MLB ball and tired down the stretch in 2019.
Meanwhile, Gil, Medina and Florial are further away from the Majors. Gil and Medina raised their profiles with strikeout-laden 2019 seasons for Single-A Charleston, followed by brief stints with Single-A Tampa. Gil, funny enough, was acquired via trade in March 2018 when the Yankees needed to clear room on the 40-man roster. Medina doesn’t turn 21 until May while Gil will be 22 in June.
Florial had his second consecutive down year, both hampered by wrist/hand injuries in Spring Training. That’s part of why he didn’t make Baseball America’s top 10 Yankee prospects. His chances of reaching the Majors in 2020 are slim (as they are for Gil and Medina), but the outfielder would have easy to keep on a 26-man roster for a rebuilding team. Now, he has to find a way to cut down on strikeouts and tap into his potential before it’s too late.
2. The borderline additions: Yajure and Nelson were mentioned by most outlets as bubble players with some favoring Yajure as a “must add.” Kriske, though, came as a surprise even if his name was mentioned.
All three are right-handed pitchers who spent time in Double-A last season, but that’s where the similarities end. Yajure specializes in control, issuing just 30 walks in 138 2/3 innings across High-A and Double-A last season. Though just 21, he has missed development time with Tommy John surgery that knocked out his 2017 season, but he’s fully recovered and has hit 97 on the gun.
However, unlike the four locks, Yajure didn’t make either Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10s. He should start in Trenton after making two starts there in 2019 and could rise from there.
Nelson, meanwhile, reached Triple-A briefly after excelling in the Eastern League. High strikeout rate, high walk rate, the 2016 fourth-rounder has potential to make the Majors in 2020, though that would most likely come in relief as he’s behind García and Michael King for now.
Kriske was the lone full-time reliever of the bunch. Another pitcher who has gone under the knife for TJ, he’s the oldest player added at 25 and is a former sixth-round pick as a senior sign from USC. He could be the latest homegrown college reliever to find his way up the Yankees pipeline. The Bombers wouldn’t have added him to the 40-man as a 25-year-old reliever if he weren’t MLB ready in the near future.
The right-hander added a splitter after joining Trenton, and it appears to have worked wonders for him. Look at his funky motion (and the swings and misses).
3. Yankees not nearly done: So the Yankees are now at 40 men exactly with their 40-man roster. That leaves them no room for Domingo Germán when he’s eventually reinstated from the Commissioner’s exempt list, nor for retaining free agents like Brett Gardner, Dellin Betances, Cameron Maybin or Austin Romine. Or, if this is your cup of tea, Gerrit Cole.
The Yankees had to add the seven players above by Wednesday or else they would have been ripe for the Rule 5 draft in a couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be used as trade bait between now and the start of 2020. In fact, the Bombers might have added one or two players to maintain leverage in ongoing trade talks.
As mentioned above, the Yankees acquired Gil in March 2018. They did so after adding Jake Cave to the 40-man roster the previous fall, only to need room for Brandon Drury in Spring Training. A similar fate could befall Nelson, Kriske or one of the other recent additions, or one of the higher-end prospects (Deivi, Gil, Medina Florial) could be packaged in a larger deal.
I thought the Yankees were going to swing a trade, hence why they went up until the 8 p.m. deadline. They could have been working on one and just didn’t find one that made sense. The Rays, meanwhile, dealt Jose De Leon and Christopher Sanchez to alleviate their own logjam, though they also DFA’d Matt Duffy.
4. Current 40-man roster composition: The Yankees are far from done and they’ll need to excise players currently on their 40-man to make any further MLB moves. But as they stand right now, they have 24 pitchers and just 16 hitters on the roster, with Germán still in the organization as a de facto 41st man while awaiting suspension. While that split remains lopsided, it’s because the Yankees like their pitching prospects. They had enough good ones that other teams would have snapped up, and now they’ll have to sort them out.
Chances are, not all 24 pitchers will make it through the next three months until pitchers and catchers report. Here’s how I see the current chopping block, in order:
Holder and Tarpley are each fine up-and-down arms, but they haven’t proven themselves more than OK middle relievers in a team full of pitchers. Holder is arb eligible for the first time and is projected to make $800K in 2020, but he also had a 6.31 ERA over 41 1/3 innings last year. Even with a strong 2018, he might struggle to make it through, as could Tarpley. Both had injuries that hampered their 2019 seasons.
Adams hasn’t taken as a starter, so it’s probably time to move him to relief full time and see if a healthy version of him can make it as a reliever. Kriske and Abreu, though both in Double-A and near the Majors, each have an injury history and could be expendable.
Luis Cessa, meanwhile, could fit on that list as he’s out of options, and the Yankees have that glut of pitchers on the roster. If J.A. Happ, Jonathan Loaisiga or Germán are moved to long relief in 2020, Cessa’s spot becomes tenuous, as it does if Adams breaks through.
Key date to watch out for: Dec. 2. That’s the non-tender deadline, which could be Holder, Cessa or Tarpley’s last stand.
5. Bird’s likely exit: Though the Yankees could potentially retain Bird after designating him for assignment Wednesday, I wouldn’t count on it. As he has more than three years of service time, he can elect free agency if he clears waivers.
With Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu and Mike Ford all on the roster, the Yankees scarcely have room for a first base-only player like Bird that can barely stay on the field. His one-week stint in the Dominican Winter League was encouraging but not enough to save his roster spot.
If he hits free agency, maybe New York could work a Minor League deal with their erstwhile first baseman. The organization has certainly believed in him enough to keep him through a laundry list of injuries, and they were rewarded briefly in the 2017 postseason.
Ah, well. At this point, Bird is better off seeking greener pastures with an organization that has more of an opening at first. The talent has always been there, so hopefully his body can hold up wherever he ends up in 2020.
6. The end of the Ellsbury Era: It was time for the Yankees to move on from the veteran outfielder, even if it meant eating $26 million in the process. It’s been 25 months since Ellsbury donned Yankee pinstripes and Brian Cashman didn’t seem confident in Ellsbury’s renewed health during the GM’s end-of-year press conference.
“It’s hard to say based on how things have played out,” Cashman said of Ellsbury’s availability after Aaron Hicks’ surgery. “Right now he’s not someone in a position health-wise where I can answer anything in the affirmative.”
Ellsbury had $21 million due his way in 2020, though the New York Post reported that was uninsured. The Yankees had previously been able to insure his contract, so they weren’t on the hook for all of his 2018 and ’19 salaries. (To clarify, Ellsbury got all the money owed to him, but an insurance company partially compensated the Bombers.) He also is due $5 million to buy out his option for 2021.
The seven-year, $153 million contract is a notable blemish on Cashman’s strong history of signing position players in free agency. In the same offseason, Shin-Soo Choo earned a similar seven-year deal from the Rangers and was an All-Star in 2018. He was worth 14.1 WAR to Ellsbury’s 9.5 ove the last six seasons, and he still has another year to go.
Meanwhile, the Ellsbury signing came on the heels of Robinson Cano’s exit to Seattle. The Yankees reportedly offered him $175 million over seven years, but the second baseman signed for less AAV ($24 million) over 10 seasons. After a lackluster 2013 season where the Bombers’ offense cratered, the team might have felt it needed to make a splash on offense when they signed Ellsbury in addition to Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann.
Ultimately, the signing did not work out at all, outside of Ellsbury’s single-season, career and postseason catcher’s interference records, all set with the Yankees. OK, I guess I’m the only one who cares about that last part. It was time for the Yankees to close this chapter.
7. Bye to Nasty Nestor: Lastly, the Yankees removed Cortes from the 40-man roster. He doesn’t have as big a name as Ellsbury or Bird, but baseball’s Mr. 305 should be remembered fondly for his contributions to the 2019 Yankees.
The final numbers are ugly. He had a 5.67 ERA/5.57 FIP and a 79 ERA+, allowing 16 home runs over 66 2/3 innings. The soft-tossing left-hander rarely topped 90 mph, but he got by on guile and an advanced pitching acumen.
Cortes was the bulk guy to form an impressive tandem with opener Chad Green from May well into the summer. The duo helped the Yankees stave off rotation armageddon. Green obviously deserves more of the accolades when it comes to the Yankees’ opener success, but Cortes kept it going. As the bulk pitcher, he helped the Yankees get wins over the Rays (x2), Indians, Astros and Twins, among others.
As the Yankees have previously DFA’d him and the Orioles sent him back in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, I’m pretty certain he can elect free agency. Another team could use him in a bulk/opener role. For whatever reason, I feel as if he’d fit the Seattle Mariners well.
The Yankees added OF Estevan Florial and RHPs Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Brooks Kriske, Nick Nelson and Miguel Yajure to the 40-man roster Wednesday. To make additional room on the roster, New York designated Greg Bird and Nestor Cortes Jr. for assignment while Jacoby Ellsbury was released.
After today’s moves, the Yankees now have a full 40-man roster before making any free agent moves. Assuming they don’t make further room, they won’t be able to select a player in next month’s Rule 5 draft.
While the Yankees were expected to add many of those seven players to the roster, it was surprising that they fit all of them, including Kriske, Nelson and Yajure, who weren’t locks. Meanwhile, the moves to jettison both Bird and Ellsbury alongside Cortes comes as a shock. Bird made just 41 plate appearances last season while Cortes pitched to a 5.67 ERA.
Oswaldo Cabrera, Chris Gittens, Hoy Jun Park and Rony García are among the players the Yankees left unprotected. For more on those names and others, check out Derek’s Rule 5 primer from Tuesday.
In the past, the Yankees have lost plenty of players in the Rule 5 draft, though players are often returned. Cortes, Mike Ford, Caleb Smith and Iván Nova were each selected then returned in recent seasons. The Yankees weren’t so fortunate with Tommy Kahnle and Luis Torrens, each of whom stuck in their new locales.
The last time New York selected a player in the Rule 5 draft was 2011, when the Bombers chose Brad Meyers and purchased the contract of Cesar Cabral, though neither ultimately lasted long in the Bronx.
While the Pinstripers made the aforementioned moves Wednesday, they had previously culled their system of players who they would have needed to add Wednesday. OF Blake Rutherford (White Sox, Robertson/Kahnle/Frazier deal), RHPs Taylor Widener (D-backs, Drury deal) and J.P. Feyereisen (Brewers) were all added to their respective 40-man rosters.
INF Nick Solak, also part of the Brandon Drury deal, was dealt from Tampa Bay to Texas at the deadline last year due to the Rays’ own roster crunch. The Yankees also dealt 1B Ryan McBroom to Kansas City last August and he has remained on the Royals’ 40-man roster. Dom Thompson-Williams (Paxton trade) was not added to the Mariners’ 40-man roster.
By some metrics, Zack Britton was the Yankees’ most valuable reliever in 2019 after returning to the club in free agency. The veteran reliever underwent a minor transformation in his pitching style (as well as the spelling of his first name) and appears to have been better for it.
Re-upping in the Bronx
The Yankees kept Britton on a 2-4 year contract (more on that in What’s Next) with a $13 million AAV. They chose the former Orioles closer over homegrown favorite David Robertson and other relievers despite a rocky, at times, two-month stint in New York. Considering he was a reliever on the wrong side of 30 with an Achilles tear in the rearview mirror, Britton wasn’t the safest choice, but he ultimately proved the right one.
The sinkerballer finished just one point of ERA behind Adam Ottavino for the team lead, closing the season with a 1.91 ERA that far outpaced his 3.74 FIP. However, with a league-leading 77.2 percent groundball rate, he’s the type of pitcher than can consistently outperform that FIP, even if his 86.8 percent strand rate was slightly unsustainable.
While Aaron Boone was flexible with the roles for Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and Ottavino, he left Britton mostly untouched as the eighth inning man ahead of Aroldis Chapman. He was his normal self in the first half — 2.43 ERA with a poor K-BB ratio buoyed by the aforementioned ton of groundballs — and navigated his way through a few blown saves for a fine start to the year.
Neither righties nor lefties hit him particularly well (.576 and .462 OPS, respectively) and all three home runs he allowed were off the bats of right-handed hitters. He was also demonstrably better at home for whatever reason, allowing just a .047 ISO in the Bronx.
Britton, though, didn’t settle for having a merely good season. With a key change in his repertoire, he turned in his best season since he was the best reliever in baseball in the mid-2010s.
Britton has generally run absurd rates of sinkers as a reliever. From 2014 through 2018, he threw the pitch more than 90 percent of the time. And it worked! The bowling-ball pitch with mid-90s velocity is devastating to hitters of all kinds and has made Britton an elite pitcher.
However, he hasn’t always been able to corral the pitch. Outside of 2014-16, his pre-Achilles injury days, he’s had walk problems with BB rates above nine percent. That got worse in 2019 with a 13.1 percent rate as he would have bouts with his command every other month.
To balance out his sinker, Britton turned to his slider more often as the season went on. (Brooks Baseball deems it a curveball, Statcast calls it a slider. It’s a good pitch regardless). It was a small change at first, but it turned into a big one; Batters went just 1-for-30 against his offspeed offering with a 61 percent whiff rate. In a small sample, he dominated.
As you can see in the chart below, he leaned on the offspeed pitch more than ever in 2019 and October especially.
Britton went from throwing it just 6.8 percent of the time in June to 19.7 percent in August to above 27 percent in both September and October. Hitters remained focused on his sinker, the right approach, and he made them pay with his new look.
Britton made seven appearances across the ALDS and ALCS, pitching in all but one game in each series. He only allowed one run — coming on a solo homer with a three-run lead in Game 3 of the ALDS. Over eight innings, he gave up just two hits but walked six and struck out six.
By the end of the ALCS, the southpaw was exhausted. He showed it by loading the bases in his Game 6 appearance without striking out anyone. “I think everyone was running on fumes there at the end,” he told Marc Carig, a rebuke to the Bombers’ reliever-heavy approach born out of necessity for the 2019 postseason run.
Britton has at least one year left on his 2-4 year deal signed last offseason. After the 2020 season, the Yankees will have to decide whether to pick up his 2022 option (worth $14 million) or give Britton the chance to opt-out immediately. Barring injury or a major regression in performance, expect the Yankees to pick up his option.
With Chapman back, Britton should settle in as the eighth-inning guy for another season. He just threw his most innings in three years at age-31 and has had issues with control ever since his Achilles injury. Can he maintain a sub-2.00 ERA? Maybe not, but his changes in 2019 portend well for 2020.