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Yankees non-tender Holder, re-sign Cessa and Heller, tender others

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So long, Jonathan Holder. He was the one player the Yankees non-tendered this evening. Don’t rule out some sort of reunion, but for now, he’s a free agent. Meanwhile, the Yankees came to agreements with Luis Cessa (reportedly $1.05 million) and Ben Heller (undisclosed). While the Yankees didn’t announce any contracts with its other arbitration-eligible players, it’s safe to say that all of them were tendered contracts. Yes, including Gary Sánchez. These players can still come to terms with the Yankees and avoid arbitration.

With Holder gone, the Yankees now have one open spot on the 40-man roster. Maybe they’ll announce DJ LeMahieu soon? We’ll see. Anyway, non-tendering Holder wasn’t a total surprise, but I definitely didn’t expect Heller to return. No details on Heller’s contract yet, but I’m sure it’s below the $700-800k that MLB Trade Rumors projected. As for Cessa: the $1.05 million agreement is below the $1.1-$1.3 million range estimated.

Around the league, there are a few players non-tendered who likely will interest the Yankees. Namely: Kyle Schwarber, David Dahl, Eddie Rosario, and Archie Bradley, among others. We’ll talk about them more in the coming days and weeks.

Earlier this week, we crowdsourced who the Yankees should non-tender tonight. There are some…interesting decisions made by some of you here. But the players with the most votes are those who you would expect.

The upcoming non-tender decisions for the Yankees

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Tomorrow’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the non-tender deadline. In case the sarcasm didn’t come through: this offseason has been so slow and boring that the best we can look forward to is a day when teams cut ties with a bunch of players. To be specific, all players must be tendered a contract for 2021 by 8pm eastern tomorrow if they have not received one yet. This really just affects the arbitration eligible players set to receive substantial raises, though pre-arbitration (i.e. near league minimum) players must receive offers too.

Now, this year will be a little different than usual. Teams are more cost-conscious after a shortened and fanless season, so there’s an expectation that a bunch of players will hit the open market. There have even been rumors that stars like Kris Bryant could non-tendered, though that would really shock me. Still, there will be better players than usual added to this winter’s free agent crop.

As for the Yankees, the front office has decisions to make on eleven arbitration eligible players. I’ve grouped them into three categories: keepers, questionable, and doubtful in terms of the likelihood the Yankees tender them contracts. After that, I’ve added a poll question for you to pick who you’d non-tender. Let’s get to it.

Keepers

Clint Frazier, Chad Green, Aaron Judge, Jordan Montgomery, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit aren’t going anywhere. All will play important roles on the 2021 squad. The projected arbitration salaries are bargains for this group. There’s really nothing more to add here.

Wild Card Round Game 1: All you could ask for

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That was ideal, was it not? The Yankees clobbered Cleveland in Game 1 of this best-of-three series, 12-3. The offense was all over Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole mowed down his opponent. It’s not like the Yankees needed to blow out Cleveland to feel comfortable, either. In fact, this one felt over after Aaron Judge’s two-run blast on the fourth pitch of the game. An early lead with Cole on the hill against a scuffling Cleveland offense? Just what the doctor ordered. Let’s break it down.

The bats took Bieber off his gameplan immediately. The Yankees’ offense may have been frustrating and inconsistent during the regular season, but that was far from the case tonight. Intimidated by the presumptive American League Cy Young winner? Not a chance. The Bombers took a 2-0 lead four pitches into this one. It completely took Shane Bieber off his game. DJ LeMahieu led off with a single and Aaron Judge followed with this:

That was quick. Bieber had come out firing all fastballs and the Yankees made him pay immediately. The right immediately shied away from his heater thereafter.

Bieber threw 27 fastballs the rest of the game, or 26.7 percent of his final 101 pitches. He’s not necessarily a fastball dominant pitcher as he used the pitch just over 37 percent in the regular season, but still. The Yankees scared him off the pitch.

Cleveland’s ace had a chance to settle down after a scoreless second and two relatively quick outs in the third inning. But instead, the Yankees’ relentless offense made him pay. Bieber fell behind Aaron Hicks 3-0, got it to 3-2, but then walked him. Up came Luke Voit:

Not a fastball, but rather, a cutter right down the pipe. Voit made him pay to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead.

The Yanks tallied a couple of more runs against Bieber in the fourth. Brett Gardner jumped a first pitch fastball for an RBI double and DJ LeMahieu delivered an RBI single up the middle against a heater too. The Yankees may not have seen Bieber’s fastball much, but when they did, they pounced. And they weren’t done jumping on Bieber’s fastball there. Gleyber Torres delivered the knockout blow in the fifth.

That was the end of Bieber’s night. 4 2/3 innings and 7 runs for the starter with a 1.77 ERA this season. Welp!

The offense didn’t let Bieber capitalize on his curveball, either. As impressive as it was to see the Yankees punish Bieber’s sporadically thrown fastball, it was also great to watch them not flail at too many of Bieber’s curveballs. Opponents had a .095 batting average, .143 slugging percentage, and 51.5 percent whiff rate against his yakker this season. Tonight, it’s not what they did when they put the ball in play (1-for-6), but rather, what they did against it otherwise.

Sure, Bieber racked up four Ks on his breaking ball, but that doesn’t tell the story. They whiffed on 7 of 18 swings (39 percent) against the curve, well below his regular season rate. They also fouled it off 5 times. Plus, Bieber was only able to nab 3 called strikes on it. It simply just wasn’t his typical putaway pitch this evening.

Overall, Bieber went to his curveball on 36 percent of his pitches this evening, 10 percent higher than in the regular season. That would have been a decent plan tonight had his curveball been fooling Yankees’ hitters. Instead, the offense was locked in. They hunted fastballs while spoiling Bieber’s curveball.

Spring Training Competition: Fifth Starter

Pitchers and catchers are the theme of the week, and since I already covered the backup catcher competition, today it’s time for the fifth starter role.

If it wasn’t for James Paxton’s surgery, this probably wouldn’t have been a competition at all. Brian Cashman proclaimed JA Happ as the team’s fifth starter in January. Personally, I expected some sort of competition whether or not Happ was still with the team, but that’s moot now. Happ’s going to be in the rotation leaving the last spot up for grabs. Let’s take a look at whose in the hunt for the last starter spot.

The favorite

It certainly seems like Jordan Montgomery is the heavy favorite. Aaron Boone spoke highly of him. He’s also got the most big league experience and success compared to the rest of the bunch in this battle. In 182 2/3 pre-TJS innings with the Yankees, Montgomery had a 3.84 ERA, 4.09 FIP, and 3.5 WAR. That’s rock solid for a back of the rotation guy.

Track record aside, the one concern I have is how rusty he may be. Now, he did return to pitch four innings last September after missing most of 2018 and 2019 rehabbing, which is a plus. But he really hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since early 2018. On the other hand, when is there a better time to dust off the cobwebs than April?

Remember, Monty won a rotation spot out of camp as a rookie in 2017 — before he had ever thrown a major league pitch. The Yankees liked him then and certainly still do now. Expect him to be in the rotation from the get go.

Better off in the bullpen?

Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa were named as options by Brian Cashman after the Paxton news broke. However, both may be better utilized in relief.

Cessa seemingly found his home in the bullpen last year. In 43 games and 81 innings, all in relief, Cessa recorded a 4.11 ERA and 4.87 FIP. The 27 year-old righty’s fastball-slider combination appears to play up in shorter stints. And frankly, I don’t really want him facing the top of the opponent’s order in the first inning. He’s better suited in low leverage opportunities as he showed last season.

Loaisiga is tantalizing simply because of his nasty stuff. Not only did he average 96.9 miles per hour on his fastball last year, but he also was in the 84th and 89th percentile in fastball and curveball spin, respectively. Though his command wavers, we know he can be dominant at times. As we’ve seen with so many other hard throwers with suspect command, sometimes they’re better off in short stints and in fact more valuable in relief anyway.

The unknown

After a strong 2018 following his inclusion in the Giancarlo Stanton trade, there was some intrigue about Michael King’s potential to be a back of the rotation starter. As a 24 year-old in 2018, King dominated across 161 1/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. He had a 1.79 ERA and 2.76 FIP supported by a good strikeout rate (24.7 percent) and stupendous walk rate (4.7 percent).

Unfortunately, 2019 was mostly a lost year for King, hence his chances in this competition being a bit of a mystery. He had a stress reaction in his pitching elbow last spring training which basically derailed all of his campaign. Once he completed his rehab and returned to action, he wasn’t as good as the year before. He did get to make his major league debut in relief last September, at least.

King’s kind of in the same boat as Montgomery except he doesn’t have the big league track record. Both pitchers returned late last season after lengthy layoffs, so it’ll be interesting to see how sharp they are in the early going. King’s going to get a look, but chances are he’s in Scranton to begin 2020.

The prospects

The Yankees’ 40-man is littered with pitching prospects, though only one of them is close to the big leagues. Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Nick Nelson, and Miguel Yajure were all new additions to the 40-man roster this winter and will be exciting to see in camp. However, only García appears to have a legitimate shot given his proximity to the majors.

Deivi reached Triple-A by the end of 2019 and there were some whispers of him joining the big league bullpen by season’s end. That never came to fruition as García stumbled a bit in Scranton. Nonetheless, the 20 year-old righty is a consensus top-100 prospect specifically named by Cashman as in the running for the gig.

Don’t count on Deivi winning the job out of camp, but it’s not impossible. Being on the 40-man alone is a booster, and if he shoves in Grapefruit League action, people are going to want to see him in the majors soon.

If we move away from the 40-man, we’ll also find Clarke Schmidt as a non-roster invitee. Schmidt’s prospect pedigree is basically on par with García’s, sans the BP rankings which prefers the latter by a good margin. There’s a decent shot we see Schmidt in pinstripes by year’s end, but since the Yankees would need to cut someone to add him for Opening Day, his odds are slim to none. Worth a mention though because of his upside and inclusion in big league camp.

Break glass in case of emergency

The Yankees brought in Nick Tropeano on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. He’s assuredly destined for Triple-A to start the season, but he does have over 200 major league innings to his name. Tropeano’s struggled to stay healthy and was last effective in 2015 and 2016, so he’s not particularly enticing.

Unless there are tons of injuries to the staff in spring, Tropeano’s not going to see action with the Yankees. He’s here more to fill out Scranton’s rotation than serve as an actual major league option. Still, he’s in camp and has pitched at the highest level before, so I suppose he has some qualifications. Again though, it’d take a true emergency to need him right away.

Reviewing the Yankees’ 2020 Projections: ZiPS

After examining Steamer’s 2020 outlook earlier this week, it’s time to review the Yankees’ ZiPS projections just released on Fangraphs today. And as you can tell by the graphic above, they are pretty, pretty good.

ZiPS comfortably puts the Yankees over the 100-win threshold, as it should. The Yankees are stacked, folks. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more intriguing projections the system has in store.

Betting the over

Hitter: Like I did with Steamer, I could easily pick DJ LeMahieu again (ZiPS has a 108 OPS+ projection). But, let’s mix it up here to avoid repetitiveness. I’m going bolder this time. Gio Urshela already has a respectable forecast, but I think he’ll do better than the 105 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR ZiPS calls for. Urshela’s exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and xwOBA all were comfortably above average last year which led to a 133 OPS+. Now, I don’t expect a repeat of 2019, but something like a 115 OPS+ seems within reach.

Pitcher: ZiPS pegs Zack Britton for a 3.48 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 51 2/3 innings. A fine projection, but I think Britton can beat it easily. Zack really came on in the second half of last season and I think we can expect more of that in 2020. Take a look at the splits from a year ago:

  • 1st half: 2.43 ERA and 4.21 FIP, 17.2 percent strikeout rate
  • 2nd half: 1.11 ERA and 3.01 FIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate

Betting the under

Hitter: This was a hard one. I don’t think there’s any obvious pick here, so I’m going a little more granular. ZiPS projects Gleyber Torres to hit 41 home runs, but I think he falls short of that. I know he hit 38 last year, so 41 may be in reach, but I am more comfortable pegging Torres in the 25-30 home run range. Which is still great! I just can’t see him hitting more homers per plate appearance (one every 15.1 PAs) than Aaron Judge (one every 15.8 PAs), which is what ZiPS indicates.

Pitcher: I have no choice but to do a repeat here. I thought Steamer was too high on JA Happ, but ZiPS is even more optimistic. It expects 138 innings of 4.43 ERA and 4.40 FIP performance, which seems too good to be true. I’ll gladly sign up for a 101 ERA+ from the fifth starter, but I just can’t envision it.

Push

Hitter: Gary Sánchez’s projection feels about right. ZiPS gives The Kraken a .244/.323/.524 (121 OPS+) batting line with 32 homers and 2.6 WAR in 467 plate appearances. Only Giancarlo Stanton (43 in 567) is projected to hit homers at a higher per PA rate than Gary. That said, I could absolutely see a monster season that beats the forecast, but this is a pretty darn good outlook nonetheless.

Pitcher: ZiPS projects a 4.34 ERA and 4.30 FIP for Masashiro Tanaka in 168 innings. Considering that Tanaka hasn’t posted a FIP below 4.01 since 2016, this seems like a reasonable expectation. In any event, we know the season doesn’t really get going until the calendar says October for Tanaka. We can reasonably expect a sub-2.00 ERA come fall.

Biggest Surprises

Hitter: ZiPS has Mike Tauchman at 2.5 WAR, or sixth-best out of the Yankees’ position players. It loves his defense and thinks he’ll hit aplenty (.263/.335/.437, 105 OPS+). I think the offensive projection is reasonable, but the way ZiPS loves Tauchman’s glove caught me off guard. Dan Szymborski, the proprietor of ZiPS, did note that the system has loved his fielding since he was in the minors. Statcast has him in the 95th percentile in outs above average, so maybe this shouldn’t come as a total surprise. But essentially, per ZiPS, the big takeaway here is that Tauchman should play over Brett Gardner, which I didn’t anticipate.

Pitcher: It’s not really one guy, but rather, how the non-late inning relievers stack up per ZiPS. See below:

PlayerERA+
Ben Heller108
Jonathan Loaisiga104
Brooks Kriske101
Jonathan Holder101
Luis Cessa93

If the Yankees are going to carry an eight man bullpen, that means three of the five above can be in the majors along with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle. It’s pretty obvious that Cessa should be the odd-man out, right? And that Heller absolutely deserves a spot, too. I didn’t expect that to be so cut and dry. I figured everyone would be a bit more closely bunched together.

Personal Favorites

When you see Gleyber’s projection.

Hitter: It has to be Gleyber’s projection, right? I know I already wrote about betting the under on his home run total, but still. .287/.348/.557 (136 OPS+), 41 home runs, and 4.6 WAR is a thing of beauty for the 23 year-old shortstop.

Pitcher: One of my favorite things about the ZiPS release are the comps the system spits out. For the Yankees, the pitcher comps are simply fantastic. ZiPS equates Gerrit Cole to prime Greg Maddux, Luis Severino to Roy Halladay, and James Paxton to Andy Pettitte. And then there’s the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman was comped to Billy Wagner, Chad Green to Rollie Fingers, and Adam Ottavino to Jeff Nelson.

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