Mailbag: Backup Catcher, Budget Situation, Lockout, Third Base Opener

As a brief programming note, we are going to run daily news and notes posts next week during the Winter Meetings in the early evening. Since they’re on the West Coast, we’ll plan to run them around 10 pm each night to keep you up to date. A lot of speculation gets thrown out there and we’ll have all of the Yankee-adjacent stuff here for you each day.

Happy Friday, everyone. The offseason is now in full swing, for real this time. The non-tender deadline has come and gone, so free agency is officially underway. The Winter Meetings begin next week. Oh yeah, and the Yankees are preparing to make Gerrit Cole a record-breaking deal. Things are happening and I am here for it.

But first, the mailbag! We have four good questions this week. As always, send your questions to us at viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com. We answer our favorites every Friday.

Ray Asks: Several backup catchers hit the market and the Yanks should bring in someone to compete with Higgy for the backup job. Who do you like? I’m going Kevin Plawecki (pitch framing) with everyone else decidedly “yuch.”

This was good timing because I took a look at Higashioka yesterday. I actually think that Higashioka is going to be the man to get that job specifically because of his pitch framing, which is an elite skill he possesses. It’s also something that the Yankees consider the most valuable part of a catcher’s defensive repertoire. It only figures that it will play a big role in determining Sánchez’s backup. That Higashioka will only be making the league minimum only helps his case. The Yankees don’t like to devote a lot of money to the backup catcher slot. I don’t blame them.

Anyway, it is true that Kevin Plawecki had a great year behind the plate for Cleveland last year. According to Statcast, he converted 53.6% of 1,279 non-swing pitches into strikes, which is very, very good. It would rank at the top of the league, actually. It saved Cleveland four runs.

Here’s the thing though: Higashioka saved two runs in a third of the chances and converted a higher percentage of non-swings into strikes. He’s always been a positive framer at the MLB and MiLB level. Plawecki, on the other hand, has been more up-and-down. He was exceptional in 2015, okay in 2016, awful in 2017 and 2018, and better again in 2019. Perhaps Swanson is confident he could make that a consistent skill, but who knows?

Anyway, Plawecki can’t hit at all, logging a .218/.304/.332 (74 OPS+) line in about 1,000 career at-bats, but it is better than anything Higashioka has done. MLBTR predicts Plaweki gets $1.3 million (Romine is pegged for $2.0m) so it’s not like he’d be expensive. I just have a feeling that they stay in-house for this one if Romine doesn’t come back, but Plawecki wouldn’t shock me. It’s a good idea for sure, even if not the most exciting. But hey, we are talking about the backup catcher, after all.

Jonathan Asks: It looks like there will be a lockout. It stinks but that’s realistically what will happen. In that case, no one gets paid. In general, do you think teams will incentivize players (like Cole) by paying them significantly less in 2021 and more in 2022? For example, let’s say it’s seven years 245 ($35m a year). Pay him $55m in 2022 and $15 in 2021. It’s good for luxury tax purposes and also players (like Cole) get more money so it might incentivize them to come.

This is an interesting thought, but not a likely scenario. I do have to say that I agree that a work stoppage is likely, and, if a stoppage happens, it will be a lockout, not a strike. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2021 season. We’ve got two years yet to go.

Anyway, I don’t think we will see contracts structured in this way for a few reasons. First, and probably most importantly, the way that the current Competitive Balance Tax is structured is to avoid this scenario entirely. The annual luxury tax hit is calculated on the average annual value of the contract, not its value in any given year. So, in your scenario, it would be a $35 million hit no matter what Cole got paid in 2021.

Secondly, I’m not sure that teams will want to defer the money until after any work stoppage ended. They’ll be negotiating and leveraging their power to make baseball’s financial power dynamics tilt even more in their favor. Backloading a contract like that may actually end up hurting more than it helps from an ownership perspective. But we’ll see.

Finally, I don’t think either side is going to treat a work stoppage as a given. Even if it seems that way to us. If it would alter the calculus of any player, it would be the mid-market sort of players, not top-of-the-line guys like Cole. They’re the ones who are going to get paid no matter what. It’s your more average free agent that may want to cash in now with all of this future uncertainty. Interesting idea though, and the labor strife is an interesting calculation that some agents now have to consider.

George Asks:  Without even unloading Happ, doesn’t the potential savings from CC, maybe Didi, Romine, and Betances, not to mention anything salvaged from Ellsbury, make going after Cole much easier and doable?

I think this is worth considering, but only to a degree. The Yankees will likely need to fill those roles, be it with those players or another combination. Even if they sign Cole, they won’t be done, at least I don’t think so. Trading Happ, which we’ve covered here before, is one way to free up some money. With that said, though, the Yankees have indicated that they essentially have a blank check with Cole. So that’s nice.

That might be because of upcoming financial “flexibility”, as is it is often described. They’ve reset their CBT hit in recent years so their penalties will be less severe than they could be. Not to mention, they have a lot of money coming off the books after 2020. Even counting just Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton, they’ll clear $35 million off their CBT hit following this year. That doesn’t count Happ if his option doesn’t vest.

In other words, they could very well run a large salary this year if they signed Cole and aim to “reset” it again after 2020. There’s upcoming flexibility to be sure. However, they should not do this. They should sign Cole and not let themselves be inhibited in the future due to payroll concerns, either. Even though there is a limit, I’m fairly confident they can spend more than they do now. I’ve spoken enough about that in the past, though, so no need to beat a dead horse. Right now I’m just glad we’re hearing what we’re hearing about Cole.

Paul Asks: Had a thought regarding the Urshela/Andujar question: what if the Yanks took the opener concept from the mound to third base?  It could work like this: put Andujar toward the top of the order, first or second, and give him a set number of at-bats (I would go with three, but two could work too).  Then Urshela knows that he’ll be going in the game every night after Andujar’s third at-bat. I know, maybe it’s just a fancy way of saying “late-inning defensive replacement.” But my understanding is that players like predictability when it comes to playing time.  This would provide that for both of them.  We’ve got two great players for one position.  Barring a trade, wouldn’t it make sense to give both of them a set role?

This is another interesting idea, though it is a fancy way of saying “late-inning defensive replacement.” I like the idea of giving people some predictability, but I do think that this is a little too cute by half.

First, we all saw last year what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men. The Yanks had no shortage of playing time to doll out in the infield in 2019 and I expect the same to be true in 2020. Even without, hopefully, the onslaught of injuries. The Yankees rest their guys and rotate their playing time. That’s good for them and I think it’s a strength of their player management. In other words, I think Andújar and Urshela can both play.

Secondly, we’ll all have to see what the future holds for both players. Andújar is coming off a major injury and Urshela’s 2019 was a very clear outlier in his career. I’m more of a believer in the Giodude now than I ever was before–there’s evidence that he’s legit–but he’s going to have to come out and do it again, I think. As for Andújar, there’s positional uncertainty there plus the fact that he’s going to have to probably shake off some rust, too.

Finally, this is the sort of problem that usually sorts itself out in the end. I doubt they’d do something like this in the regular season as opposed to just mixing up the playing time. It’s an October idea, for sure, but let’s just hope they all get to October healthy and productive first. That’s the starting point. Then we might see something like this, much like they did with Andújar and Hechavarria in 2018.

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3 Comments

  1. Mungo

    I suspect there won’t be a strike/lockout. Both sides making too much money. On the other hand, maybe the players have to show they’re willing to strike to force the owners to make some concessions. I can’t imagine it would last long. If the players decided to strike on the simple request to eliminate the luxury tax. Would the owners shut down the game for months over the removal of a policy that wouldn’t force them to spend a penny more?

  2. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Ray Asks: Several backup catchers hit the market and the Yanks should bring in someone to compete with Higgy for the backup job. Who do you like? I’m going Kevin Plawecki (pitch framing) with everyone else decidedly “yuch.”

    Our first, second and third priorities even before signing Cole should be to re-sign Austin Romine, Ray. Even Cole would struggle without a quality C to throw to. Higgy is a serviceable backup and nobody can really compete with him. See what Gary will bring on the open market at the Winter Meetings and re-sign Romine as our starter. All Romine and Higgy did last year was hit and hit and hit while Gary was out. All Gary did was strike out in the postseason.

    Jonathan Asks: It looks like there will be a lockout. It stinks but that’s realistically what will happen. In that case, no one gets paid. In general, do you think teams will incentivize players (like Cole) by paying them significantly less in 2021 and more in 2022? For example, let’s say it’s seven years 245 ($35m a year). Pay him $55m in 2022 and $15 in 2021. It’s good for luxury tax purposes and also players (like Cole) get more money so it might incentivize them to come.

    There won’t be a lockout, Jonathan. It would destroy the game. The players are already well over paid. Fans won’t support a lockout for millionares trying to get more money especially when they’re struggling to get by on $15/hr. Some of us don’t eat Papa John’s by choice like me, they do it because it’s the cheapest food they can get their grubby little hands on. If Cole only gets $30 million a year boo hoo.

    George Asks: Without even unloading Happ, doesn’t the potential savings from CC, maybe Didi, Romine, and Betances, not to mention anything salvaged from Ellsbury, make going after Cole much easier and doable?

    Yes it does, George, and there’s no excuse for not getting Cole. I think this FO finally realizes that it needs an ace of the staff to win in October. Not more #2s and 3s. You need a horse like Scherzer or Verlander who can give you 7+ innings every time. No more of this pulling the starter after 4 innings of shut out ball. Trade Happ, don’t re-sign Didi. Do re-sign Romine and Dellin. Don’t do another dumb deal like Edwin and that’s more than enough money for Cole. And God forbid we spend a little more to win.

    Paul Asks: Had a thought regarding the Urshela/Andujar question: what if the Yanks took the opener concept from the mound to third base? It could work like this: put Andujar toward the top of the order, first or second, and give him a set number of at-bats (I would go with three, but two could work too). Then Urshela knows that he’ll be going in the game every night after Andujar’s third at-bat. I know, maybe it’s just a fancy way of saying “late-inning defensive replacement.” But my understanding is that players like predictability when it comes to playing time. This would provide that for both of them. We’ve got two great players for one position. Barring a trade, wouldn’t it make sense to give both of them a set role?

    I would do this occasionally, Paul, but Urshella’s bat is just as important as his glove. We need both their bats in the lineup so Andujar would my primary DH. On days Urshella needs a blow you could play Andujar at 3rd and use Wade as a defensive replacement. Or on days Stanton needs to DH to avoid him getting hurt you do this idea. I wouldn’t trade either Andujar or Urshella. If you trade one and one gets hurt then Wade is your starting 3rd baseman and nobody wants that not even Wade.

    • TommyJohn

      Your right! Austin’s 95 wrc+ is better than Gary’s 116

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