Did you realize that the triumvirate of Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, and Jordy Mercer accumulated 170 plate appearances in 2020? That was nearly a third of the team’s total plate appearances at second base and shortstop. Both DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres spent some time on the injured list which quickly exposed the Yankees’ lack of depth up the middle.
This problem was something we clamored about last winter when Didi Gregorius departed. It’s something the team needs to address this offseason even after re-signing DJ LeMahieu or acquiring a shortstop like Francisco Lindor.
Here’s how this should play out. If LeMahieu returns, the Yankees still need to bring in another infielder capable of playing shortstop. Going another year of Wade/Estrada just isn’t going to cut it. If it’s Lindor (or another shortstop), Torres can act as the reserve shortstop when he’s not at second base. That doesn’t mean the team should rest on their laurels, though. In fact, it might make it easier to obtain a bench infielder upgrade since said target wouldn’t have to be able to play shortstop (though it’d still be nice).
With that in mind, let’s get into a few options that the Yankees should look into this winter.
There’s no question that the Yankees need to bolster the starting rotation. A team that resorts to smoke and mirrors in Game 2 of a playoff series is a team in need of pitching help. The Yankees may have Gerrit Cole, but things thin out really quickly after him, even with the promising Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt in the wings. Bringing back Masahiro Tanaka will help, but frankly, the Yankees need to do more than just that. That’s where someone like free agent Charlie Morton comes in.
Background & Performance
Morton was born in New Jersey but grew up in Connecticut and apparently was a big Yankees fan. The Braves drafted him out of high school in the third round of the 2002 draft, but it took him a while to make the big leagues. He debuted for Atlanta in 2008, but was dealt to Pittsburgh the following summer for Nate McLouth.
The righty put together some solid yet unspectacular seasons in Pittsburgh before a brief stay in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until 2017 with Houston that he truly broke out at 33 years of age. Since, Morton owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 546 1/3 innings. He doesn’t necessarily go deep into games (5.6 innigns per start in that timeframe), but he’s undoubtedly effective when on the mound. During that same timespan, he’s fanned 28.4 percent of batters, walked 8.0 percent of opponents, and allowed just 0.84 homers per nine innings.
The hot stove season is underway, sort of. Things are pretty quiet on the rumor mill and only a couple of notable transactions have occurred. Robbie Ray re-signed with Toronto earlier this week and Marcus Stroman accepted the qualifying offer to remain with the Mets. The Yankees have some qualifying offer news too, which leads us right into today’s notes.
DJ LeMahieu will reject qualifying offer
D.J. LeMahieu will not accept the Yankees’ $18.9 million qualifying offer by Wednesday’s deadline, per source. Not a surprising development, as LeMahieu has put together two stellar seasons in New York and is considered to be one of the top free agents on the market.
This isn’t a surprise. Today’s the decision deadline for players who received the qualifying and LeMahieu will not accept. If my understanding of the qualifying offer rules are correct, the Yankees are now eligible to receive a compensation pick after the fourth round of next year’s amateur draft should LeMahieu sign elsewhere.
The median contract value per FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing for LeMahieu is $42 million of three years, which is an absolute bargain. The average was a bit higher at 3.45 years and $62.1 million ($18 million AAV), but still very reasonable for the second baseman. I’d be very happy if the Yankees could bring him back at either of those prices, although their sights could be elsewhere. Hell, we let him walk in our plan released yesterday.
I missed something when I put together the offseason calendar a couple of weeks ago: minor league free agency. Big whoop, I know. Still, the Yankees have a number of minor league free agents (as does every team), but they might actually add one or two of them to the 40-man roster before they file for free agency. Here’s a non-wholly inclusive list of Yankees minor leaguers eligible for free agency:
You may be familiar with some of these players, but these aren’t exactly exciting names. So, why am I bringing this up now, when the big fish free agents (i.e. DJ LeMahieu) are about to file in the coming days? Mainly, I suspect that teams are going to be a tad more aggressive in handing out 40-man spots to minor league free agents this year. Especially with all of the claims of significant financial losses around the league. So, if the Yankees really like one of these individuals, they will likely add them to the roster shortly to prevent the other 29 teams from calling.
The Yankees enter the 2020 season with a legitimate claim as the best team in baseball.
The team secured their primary offseason target in Gerrit Cole. Despite this tremendous acquisition, there were more subtractions than additions from last year’s ALCS team. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that championship caliber teams win titles in the details. The reasoning is every spot on the 26 man roster should be filled with as high a quality player as possible. Quality isn’t limited to talent. It also includes dependability, experience, past production, etc. This Yankees team no longer has the luxury of evaluating or carrying what ifs on their initial roster if better options exist. This begs the question: are the Yankees in house options better than the available options on the free agent market?
Bobby did a great job projecting the Yankees Opening Day roster as things stand now. Using that projection for reference, there are a few spots on the position player side that could potentially use an upgrade or at the very least more competition. The players currently holding these spots are Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford and Clint Frazier. Some are safer to make the team than others. Let’s take a look at two of the top remaining free agents to see if any are worth a flier.
Puig burst on the scene in 2014 with the Dodgers. He was an exciting All-Star that year displaying power at the plate and an arm from God. Puig’s career has been a model of inconsistency ever since with 2019 seeing a large drop off in the metrics.
In researching Puig’s data, I thought he had more power than the numbers suggest. He’s never hit more than 3o home runs in his career. His statcast numbers show above average, but not spectacular power. Here is 2019:
This is 2018:
The drop in hard hit percentage between the two seasons immediately jumps out. This directly contributes to the drop in his wOBA and xSLG. There are a few more metrics that may explain this tale of two vastly different offensive seasons.
Puig’s overall plate discipline took a nosedive in 2019. Here are some of his metrics along with their career rankings:
Chase Rate: 30.1% (Highest of his career)
Zone Contact Rate: 79.4% (Second lowest of his career)
Whiff Rate: 28.2% (Highest of his career)
Strikeout Rate: 21.8% (Highest of his career)
Walk Rate: 7.2% (Lowest of his career)
These are all bad trends. They are especially alarming when you consider the types of hitters the Yankees prefer. This doesn’t match up well with the Yankees at all.
Defense and Roster Competition
Things don’t look much better on the defensive side. Puig is primarily a right fielder and doesn’t rate particularly well. Besides some guy named Judge manning the position, Puig doesn’t provide much defensive value. He registered zero outs above average. He is the definition of average despite having an incredible arm. Puig gets terrible jumps and has a success rate of 84%. It is reasonable to guess that the number would be even lower if Yasiel played LF in Yankee Stadium. It would be great to see the throws, but who knows when he’ll actually get to the ball.
The primary guys under threat with a Puig signing would be Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford. Tauchman is the superior fielder. He may also be on his way to becoming the better hitter as well. As Bobby points out, Ford may already be a better hitter. It doesn’t hurt that both Tauchman and Ford are lefties.
The recent news of Aaron Judge battling a sore shoulder could change the equation. Aaron Boone is saying it is just maintenance, but we’ve seen this movie before. It is quite possible that Judge is feeling early camp soreness and nothing more. If this does turn into a bigger issue, the thin outfield depth will be immediately tested. Bolstering the roster due to injury is the only scenario in which I see the Yankees checking in on Puig. That may not even be enough to pursue a deal.
It has been a fall from grace for Brian Dozier. From 2015-2017, Dozier hit 104 home runs. Since 2017, he’s only hit 41 home runs. He finished last season with a slash line of .238/.340/.430/.771 in 416 at bats. It was a pretty good recovery from an injury plagued 2018 when he hit .182/.300/.350/.650 with a 77OPS+. Yikes.
Despite the big home run numbers earlier in his career, Dozier has never been a big hard hit% or exit velocity hitter. He ranks in the 36th and 30th percentile respectively. His ISO took a major dip following the 2017 season:
The dramatic drop from 2017 to 2018 can be attributed to a knee injury Dozier suffered. There is a bit of a rebound in 2019, but the jump isn’t that considerable. It is clear he’s lost a significant amount of power than in his earlier years. That is pretty concerning for a player whose value is largely tied to his slugging.
There are some numbers that show Dozier still has some life in his bat. His barrel% of 6.7 ranks ahead of hitters like Tim Anderson, Jose Ramirez, and Michael Brantley. Dozier’s sweet spot% of 32.7 is ahead of players such as Rafael Devers, Christian Yelich, George Springer and Josh Donaldson. He hit 20 home runs in 416 at bats and he easily posted the highest walk rate of his career at 12.7%. For what it’s worth, Steamer projects Dozier to hit .235/.325/.436/.761. with a wOBA of .322. There is still some pop in the bat, but it’s nowhere near the elite level it once was.
Defense and Competition
Simply put, the glove does not play. Dozier ranks in the 6th(!!!) percentile for Outs Above Average. He finished 2019 with a -6 in OAA at second base. He is incapable of playing shortstop as well. There was a time when Brian Dozier was an above average defender. He led the league in fielding percentage in 2017. He had five seasons where he was in the top 10 in range factor per game. Those days are long gone. He is essentially a DH with declining power.
In terms of the Yankees taking a flyer on Dozier, it really depends on what you value more. The bat could be useful if smartly deployed. He can be a nice piece off the bench that can provide some power. The issue is he doesn’t have a position and the Yankees have plenty of bigger and better bats to put in the lineup. Is he a better hitter than Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada? Yes. Is he a better overall player than those two at the money it would take to sign him? Probably not. The lack of defense leads me to believe the in house options are better.
So Is It Worth It?
We’re at the part of the season where there are slim free agent pickings. All of these options have legitimate warts. That is why they are still on the market. If we circle back to the original point of maximizing each available roster spot, it doesn’t appear that any of the available players would be able to do that. In all transparency, this post originally had a section on Brock Holt, but he has since signed with the Brewers. He was the one guy I believed could provide an upgrade to the roster.
There was a time a few weeks ago when the Yankees could’ve found pieces on the market that would be considered upgrades from the in house options. That is no longer the case. Guys like Puig, Dozier, Tim Beckham, and Corey Spangenberg offer little to no value. Again, this view may change if the Yankees suffer injuries throughout camp.
The Yankees appear to be content with their current roster options. This was the case as soon as they signed Gerrit Cole. The front office has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to player evaluations. It feels like barring injuries, the next time the Yankees will seriously consider a move is when we approach the trade deadline. Hopefully, it will be to supplement a healthy and productive roster and not filling holes due to injury or subpar performance.