Mailbag: Luke Voit, Tanaka Extension, Ideal Spending Pattern, State of the Market

We’re another week closer to the start of the 2020 regular season. This week, the Yankees and closer Aroldis Chapman agreed to a new contract, the team hired a new pitching coach, and they are engaging in contract negotiations with Brett Gardner. No surprises anywhere there. It’s that the offseason is getting off to a quick start for the Yanks. If recent history is any indication, there’s going to be a long time between now and whenever the big fish sign their deals.

Anyway, it’s time for another mailbag. Four good questions today. As always, send us your questions at viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com. We choose our favorites every week. Happy Friday, everyone.

Robert Asks: What’s up with Luke Voit? He was fantastic in 2018, he started 2019 well but then tanked and didn’t play in the postseason despite being healthy. I know, he had a core issue and just had surgery for it, but was the injury the reason why Voit struggled so much? Which Luke Voit will we see in 2020? This is pertinent because there is room in the infield – which already has Torres, Urshela and LeMahieu – for Voit or Didi but not both. Didi is better defensively and is left-handed, so Voit would have to be substantially better offensively to justify keeping him over Didi. Personally, I doubt Voit will be much better than Didi in 2020, so I’d rather keep Didi at SS and put Voit on the bench (or trade him). 

I am very confident that Luke Voit’s struggles came as a result of the sports hernia. Very, very confident in that, in fact. Although, to be fair, I’ve been in love with Voit’s profile since he first came to New York and got off to that torrid start. There’s every reason to believe that he’s legitimate, and that includes the results: in 658 plate appearances with New York, he’s hitting .280/.384/.517 (141 wRC+) with 35 home runs and a 13% walk rate. Yes, that includes his tough second half. The dude is a monster at the plate. I wish he was healthy for the playoffs. I think his absence really hurt the Yankees.

His second-half slump was tough, as he hit just .200/.319/.338 (80 wRC+) after returning from the injury. But let’s be fair here: that is a pretty brutal injury that is very disruptive to a hitter. Voit also got surgery immediately after the season ended, which suggested (predictably!) that he was really hurt. That he got exactly zero (0) playoff at-bats sure didn’t suggest he was super healthy, either. The Yankees don’t buy into short samples and would have rolled with Voit if he was healthy. That, more than anything, told us that this was an injury-related slump, in my opinion.

Even with the injury, Voit’s underlying statistical profile was still impressive. Check out his peripherals during the two months after his return:

  • Average Exit Velocity: 91.1 mph
  • Average Launch Angle: 15.7 degrees
  • Hard Hit Percentage: 47%
  • Chase Percentage: 21.3%
  • Walk Rate: 14%

That doesn’t exactly scream that Voit is busted. In fact, it shows that his approach at the plate actually remained quite strong. He wasn’t chasing out of the zone, he was still walking, and he even hit the ball pretty hard when he did square up. Those are all encouraging signs–and it’s exactly what Voit has done ever since coming to New York. He is a good player, and I think it’s time that everyone just accepts it. For some reason, everyone is quick to dump Voit. I don’t get it.

Finally, as for the crowded infield conundrum, I don’t think it’s really worth worrying about. Didn’t we just go through this last offseason only to find out that the infield wasn’t so crowded after all? Also, the Yanks will need a first baseman. DJLM is great but to truly maximize his value, his glove should be elsewhere.

Nick Asks: Could the Yankees save some LT space and lock in some future rotation certainty by extending Tanaka this offseason? He’s been great in the postseason but fairly mediocre in the regular season for 3 years now (101 ERA+). I’d think if they tacked on 2-3 years the contract would have an AAV under $22m, maybe $17-18m? 

I think this is a really fascinating question. It’s a creative way for the Yanks to possibly lower their CBT hit. My back-of-the-envelope math for the high end of the deal proposed here (3/$54) shows it would free up about $3 million or so in CBT room under the cap that isn’t a cap. You’re also right that Tanaka has been just about league average for about three years now, and he’s been fairly inconsistent. A reliable mid-rotation starter, and one of my favorite Yankees, but inconsistent for sure.

I also think that the Yankees and Tanaka have a good working relationship–I know the market was bad, but Tanaka did opt-in after the 2017 season–and that there’s a good chance that they renew their marriage vows after the contract ends. I’m not sure that Tanaka would be willing to forgo his leverage to take a pay cut, though. Maybe he really loves New York and wants to collect a payday through his age 35 season, checks his bank account (he’s already made over $100m) and decides that the security is more important to him. That’s certainly possible. If I was a player, I’d try to lock in the money now as opposed to testing the market. That’s for sure.

I don’t think the Yankees would do it, though. The only extensions they’ve signed in recent memory have been to Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino, and those were both players in arbitration years. In those cases, the cost-certainty works to the benefit of both the team and the player. (The Chapman extension doesn’t count in my opinion, since Chapman leveraged an opt-out and would have been a free agent.) In other words, I’d be really surprised to see the Yankees pursue this one. I like the idea though.

John Asks: In regards to spending, I know we want (and should have) both. Both the Yankees loading up now and in the future. However, Lets say you had two choices. Which one would you choose: 1) Either signing Cole and loading up but knowing the Yankees will not breach a certain point in the luxury tax consistently and will therefore sell off like the Red Sox (Judge and/or Torres traded in a few years). Lets call this the red sox model. 2) Never fully going for it but always having a contender and balancing the future. Lets call this the dodgers model. Always having a great team but never going for the kill.

I know John already prefaced this with “we should have both” and I’m glad he did, but I’m going to be super clear here: there is no choice. It is artificial. This is a drum I’ve been beating for years now. So has Mike over at River Ave. Blues and a number of other bloggers. Two days ago, Craig Edwards at FanGraphs joined in on the fun. I want to highlight another graph that, in my opinion at least, is really illustrative of this situation. Check it out:

That purple line is the Yankees and the black line is MLB average. It measures payroll as a function of team revenue (based on available figures, so it’s all back-of-the-envelope) and, yeesh. I know that the 85% figure from 2005 certainly wasn’t ever sustainable, but it is super frustrating to see that graph just plummet after 2017. (Remember, that includes Stanton’s contract.) The Yankees should never be below league average in revenue ratio, even though they are the most profitable team. It just means that they’re actively choosing not to use their biggest competitive/strategic advantage. This is all a choice. It is an artificial construct.

Okay, with that out of the way, I’m happy to play this game. Thanks for indulging me. But I’m going to adjust it a bit. I’m going to take the spirit of the question (Red Sox model vs. Dodger model) and apply it to the Yankees as they currently stand. They have a fairly cheap (though getting more expensive) core of young, talented players under team control. They’ve won 100 games in back-to-back years, and the year before that, they were a win away from the pennant. They’re in win now mode. I want to win, and I want to win now.

Therefore, I’m saying go all-in. Sign Cole, maximize the title chances for the next few seasons, and have at it. Flags fly forever. Worry about a few seasons down the line once it’s those seasons. (Besides, the Yanks have shown how quickly they can rebuild. Remember 2016? And the Yanks haven’t been actually bad since 1992. I trust that they’ll figure it out.)

The Dodger model will likely be fine as well, from a production standpoint. The Yankees will be title contenders no matter what. But I want them to be the very best they can be. So give me the Sox model every time. Not to mention, as much as I hate this, the Red Sox have won four World Series (2004, 2007, 2013, 2018) in the last 15 seasons. They should be viewed as the gold standard for MLB. Trading Betts is an embarrassment, to be clear. But at least they won. (They could also just, you know, sign Betts anyway.)

Rich Asks: So, with the off-season now a week underway, should we be surprised by the amount of non-opt outs already being announced by players that would normally test the open market? And, with that, is there any reason or indication to expect this off-season to be at least a little more fluid than the last two? 

I think J.D. Martinez should be the case study for the health of the market. Think about it: he’s 32-years-old and is hitting .317/.392/.593 (151 wRC+) with 79 home runs since joining Boston. He was a monster before joining Boston, too, but yeesh. That is a very productive player right there. He decided against opting out this year, as you know by now.

He looked at his remaining contract, which owed him $62.45 million over the next three seasons, and decided that he couldn’t do better on the open market. To me, that’s positively insane. Even if you argue that he “shouldn’t” get more than $20+m a season going forward, you’d have to think someone out there would be willing to give him at least another few years. He did not think that would be the case, and while he can opt-out again next season, he’ll be older. This was leverage he’ll never get back.

Now, do I blame Martinez? I do not. While the top of the market has done okay over the last few seasons, the overall market has been very unforgiving. That’s especially true for players over 30. But I think that should illustrate pretty clearly where players think the market is right now. If anyone in the world would be well-positioned at age-32 to capitalize on free agency, it would be J.D. Martinez. Instead, he decided to stay put. Players are ultimately rational, and I think J.D. made a rational choice here. Make of that what you will.

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8 Comments

  1. Lou

    Because the business of baseball is so wacky, how much Tanaka’s tax hit would be lowered would ultimately depend on when the extension kicks in, how much it lowers his AAV over the full scope, and whether or not baseball gives a tax hit credit for lowering salary/AAV the same way they charge for the reverse (like in Chapman’s case). The TL;DR answer is that doing this would negate the Chapman overage addition and still save them somewhere between $1-$1.2 million, which in a vacuum could just as easily be accomplished by making a couple of non-franchise altering procedural roster moves. Long answer: Tanaka’s actual salary is higher this year than any of the first 6 (he’s making $23mm this year vs $22mm from 2014-19), and while next year he’ll be in the same spot as Chapman and doesn’t have opt-out leverage (and also still has that UCL tear hanging over his head), he also probably thinks he has a good enough market that come next winter that any extension he’d be willing to sign wouldn’t be a Chapman-esque one (aka one that lowers his actual money now for extra length), but one that starts in 2021. So let’s say he does, and signs that 3/54 proposal for 2021-23; what that would do is turn his 7/155 guarantee into 10/209 guaranteed on one deal. That’s an AAV of $20.9 million, which is lower than his $22,142,857 AAV now. At worst, if MLB calculates a straight AAV swap and doesn’t account for “overpaid” tax, the Yankees would save just roughly $1.243 million ($22,142,857 minus $20,900,000) this year. At best, if MLB accounts for overage, the Yankees would get a credit of $857,142 ($132,857,142 in tax hit for 2014-19 vs $132,000,000 actual money paid) but that would be spread over four years (2020 plus the three-year extension), so they’d save an extra $214,285.50 on top of the other savings, for a total of roughly $1.45 million. Now, take that and then subtract the extra $250K or so the Chapman extension cost them, and you end up with a savings of $1-$1.2 million, which might be a great baseball decision given Tanaka’s track record, but is a business decision that, again, could just as easily be accomplished by non-tendering one or two back-end fringe 40-man guys.

  2. Jake

    Nick’s question in this mailbag was also answered by Mike on the RAB thoughts post. Cool coincidence lol

    • Bobby

      Haha, I noticed this too. It’s a good question!

      • Jake

        Since you’re here, I was a longtime daily reader of RAB and have been reading here from the start. I don’t interact much on twitter or usually comment. Just wanted to say you guys have done an outstanding job so far and I’m so excited that i still have a place like this to come to daily. All of you guys keep up the great work, it is very much appreciated.

        • DJ Lemeddardhieu

          You’re welcome, Jake. Thanks for reading!

        • Bobby

          Thanks, Jake. I really appreciate this! (And also you, Eddard.)

    • Nick G

      Submitted to both hoping I’d get one opinion and I got two! Thanks for answering my question!

  3. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Robert Asks: What’s up with Luke Voit? He was fantastic in 2018, he started 2019 well but then tanked and didn’t play in the postseason despite being healthy. I know, he had a core issue and just had surgery for it, but was the injury the reason why Voit struggled so much? Which Luke Voit will we see in 2020? This is pertinent because there is room in the infield – which already has Torres, Urshela and LeMahieu – for Voit or Didi but not both. Didi is better defensively and is left-handed, so Voit would have to be substantially better offensively to justify keeping him over Didi. Personally, I doubt Voit will be much better than Didi in 2020, so I’d rather keep Didi at SS and put Voit on the bench (or trade him).

    Nothing’s up with him, Robert. He wasn’t healthy in the postseason or he woulda been playing. And he would have been a demonstrable upgrade over Encarnacion. The fact that he wasn’t on the postseason roster and had surgery right after the year should have told you he was injured. Ottavino was garbage in September but was still on the roster. Too bad he wasn’t hurt instead of Luke or we’d still be playing right now. And no Didi is not better than Voit. Luke will be our starting 1B next season, DJ at 2nd, Gleyber at SS, Gio at 3B, Andujar and Wade as backups.

    Nick Asks: Could the Yankees save some LT space and lock in some future rotation certainty by extending Tanaka this offseason? He’s been great in the postseason but fairly mediocre in the regular season for 3 years now (101 ERA+). I’d think if they tacked on 2-3 years the contract would have an AAV under $22m, maybe $17-18m?

    This would be my 4th highest priority of the offseason, Nick. Nobody cares about the regular season. Tanaka shows up in the postseason when nobody else does. The new baseball hurt him this year more than any other pitcher. He reminds me a lot of Coney and El Duque and Wells. Guys who came up big in the postseason as opposed to that awful Ottavino. Had Boone matched up Tanaka in Game 2 instead of Game 1 we go up 2-0 in the series and we’re still playing right now. Boone mismanaged him and other guys like Severino need to step up and be that ace and the GM needs to get off his ass and sign an ace.

    John Asks: In regards to spending, I know we want (and should have) both. Both the Yankees loading up now and in the future. However, Lets say you had two choices. Which one would you choose: 1) Either signing Cole and loading up but knowing the Yankees will not breach a certain point in the luxury tax consistently and will therefore sell off like the Red Sox (Judge and/or Torres traded in a few years). Lets call this the red sox model. 2) Never fully going for it but always having a contender and balancing the future. Lets call this the dodgers model. Always having a great team but never going for the kill.

    I’d rather be the Red Sox than be us, John. They’ve at least won WS in the past decade. They at least make changes to their FO and coaching staff when they don’t. They don’t care that their GM won last year. What did he do for us this year? They also spend the most money. This used to be the way we operated under George and it only gave us 27 WS over 100 years. The Sox are currently on pace to match that while we’re on pace to match the Cubs. Cole or Stasburg needs to be signed in the offseason but won’t. Hal will say Jordan Montgomery is the next Andy and call it a day.

    Rich Asks: So, with the off-season now a week underway, should we be surprised by the amount of non-opt outs already being announced by players that would normally test the open market? And, with that, is there any reason or indication to expect this off-season to be at least a little more fluid than the last two?

    Not really, Rich. Players see the writing on the wall. Look at what the Braves GM said about owners colluding to lower players salaries. Mike Bloomberg just filed down in Alabama. The billionares are very scared and will do anything to protect their money. You won’t see these big contracts for players over 30 anymore. I’ve been saying for years that these are sunk costs in the post steroid era. The Ellsbury deal is the definition of a sunk cost. Teixera, A-Rod, CC, all of these contracts became awful late in their careers. The FO has finally gotten smarter handing those out like candy.

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