Happy Friday, everyone. The World Series is tied at 1-1 and, for this weekend at least, I am the world’s biggest Dodgers fan. I expect that the same is true for all of you, too. Anyway, it’s time for a mailbag after a quick shout out to Derek, who has been really carrying the load here while Randy and I have been tied up with other, real-life things recently. Props to Derek.
We chose four good questions today. As always, send yours to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for consideration. We choose our favorites each week. Let’s get to it.
Dan Asks: Any idea how MLB is handling the luxury tax for 2020? Players only received 37% of their salaries–all payrolls are therefore significantly below the luxury tax threshold.
This has been a confusing process for sure. There was never that much clarity over it. There are a few parts to this. The first is that the CBT was never prorated, despite the fact salaries were. It was still going to be the same and it was going to be calculated taking the annual average value (AAV) of a player’s overall contract. Same as normal, 37% prorated or not.
The second is that this was tied to a specific moment in time. It all depended on if the season concluded or not. If MLB canceled the season before September 1, the 2020 season did not count at all, really. Teams were on the hook for their end of 2019 payroll for CBT purposes. If, as is what obviously happened, they played beyond September 1, then the AAV of the end-of-2020 roster payroll is what counted. That’s what happened, and that means Gerrit Cole’s contract was on the books for the Yanks.
Toshiki Asks: Thoughts of going after Drew Smyly if Tanaka is deemed too expensive? I think Smyly had a sneaky good season.
The Yankees should not sign Drew Smyly at Tanaka’s expense. I’m pretty confident in that. However, as a complement to Tanaka, I think he would be a decent fit. I think the Yankees should absolutely consider him, even if it’s important to make sure our expectations are realistic.
Smyly was great in 2020. The 31-year-old lefty had a 3.42 ERA (2.01 FIP) with a 37.8% strikeout rate against an 8.1% walk rate in 2020. He saw a massive uptick in whiff percentage on all three of his primary pitches (fastball, cutter, and curve) that corresponded well with a pretty significant uptick on spin rates. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was just 26.1 innings and he got absolutely pummeled when batters did make contact, with exit velocity (13th percentile), hard-hit percentage (12th percentile), and barrel rate (4th percentile) all looking pretty abysmal.
He’s worth a deeper dive than this, to be fair. I’d like to see if the jump in spin rates and whiff rates is something to buy in to. I don’t see why it isn’t, per se, except for the fact that Smyly was awful in 2019. But hey, crazier things have happened. I think it would be worth taking a shot on him for sure, as those numbers and performance is tantalizing. But it was across a minuscule sample and he should not be the Yankees primary pitching target this offseason.
Anthony Asks: Isn’t Michael Brantley the perfect offseason acquisition? He’s a left-handed bat, there’s going to be an opening in LF, and he’s 34 years old (meaning he won’t command an expensive long-term deal).
The simple answer: yes. I wanted the Yankees to sign Brantley back in 2018, the last time he hit free agency, and was disappointed he signed with Houston for just 2 years and $32m. Unsurprisingly, I have not changed my tune since then and think he makes perfect sense for this Yankee roster right now.
He was great in Houston, first of all. He played in 87% of the team’s games over the last two seasons, hit .309/.370/.497 (126 OPS+), and he puts the ball in play with a strikeout rate well below league average (11%) and good walk rates (~8%). Brantley is a perennial .300 hitter. It’s just who he is as a batter, and he’s had more than 5,000 MLB plate appearances to prove it.
I think he’d pretty clearly be a different type of hitter in a Yankee lineup that is often pretty one-dimensional. The Yanks lineup is not an issue, to be clear, but it’s definitely nice to be able to throw a different look at pitchers. I think he clearly makes sense from that point of view.
As Anthony notes, though, that’s not all. Brantley makes sense because he’s a lefty bat and unlikely to command a huge contract. The Yankees could use a lefty and he’s a good one. I also think the Yanks could pretty easily promise him playing time. They love to spread the load, so he’ll get 400-500 plate appearances pretty easily, not counting any injuries. This one feels like a no-brainer to me.
Tom Asks: Going off of Derek’s recent trade proposal, how do you think the Yankees would have fared if they re-signed Cano instead of signing Ellsbury? Additionally, what do you think the Yankees would have looked like this past season and plans for this offseason would be (assuming if we re-signed Cano that might have meant Eloy instead of Gleyber, no DJLM, etc.)?
This is a really tough question. I’m not sure where I come down on it. To begin with, Canó was legitimately great in Seattle. This is something that many people, especially Yankee fans, forget. Our man hit .296/.353/.472 (129 OPS+) in his time there across 2,800 plate appearances. That’s 23 rWAR total and just under 5 rWAR a season. That is a very, very good player right there.
From a pure baseball perspective, this is obviously significantly more than the Yankees got from Jacoby Ellsbury. I don’t need to share his numbers for you to trust me on that one. I think we can reasonably assume that the 2014-16 Yankees are a better team with him on it – especially considering the Yanks actually did commit a bunch of cash in 2014, so they were clearly trying still. There’s no doubt. The same is probably true for 2016, too. That’s where things get interesting. The snowball effect really becomes clear.
The Yankees were 39-40 and 8 games out of first on July 1, 2016, right around when they were making a decision to blow it up and sell key pieces that season. If Canó is there, are things quite as bleak? The Yankees don’t blow it up very often. Maybe, if they’re just 5 games back or something, they decide not to trade key pieces and don’t revamp their farm system. It’s not as simple as saying Eloy over Gleyber.
On the other hand, Gary/Judge/Severino were in-house developments. They would have been there all the same, and then we’re imagining a 2017 season in which Robinson Canó, not Starlin Castro, is the everyday 2B. Hard not to dream. But Castro, of course, turned into Giancarlo Stanton. The opening at second base led to DJ LeMahieu. And on and on we could go.
Point is, this is a fun one. Really fun. It is a clear example of the impact just one decision can have on the future of a franchise. Are the Yankees in better shape in 2020 if they have Canó on the roster? No. But do they win a World Series in 2017? Just maybe. I wanted the Yankees to sign Canó back in 2014 and thought it was a mistake to let him go. I still think that! But I am certainly not complaining about the state of the Yankees right now, even after a few frustrating playoff exits. Things are good.