The Hot Stove is finally starting to warm up on the second day of this year’s Winter Meetings. It’s far from hot still, but teams have started to make some moves. Just not the Yankees, at least, not yet. Let’s get today’s happenings:
Lance Lynn goes to White Sox; Yankees did not engage Texas
The biggest move of the Winter Meetings (so far) went down late last night. Texas sent righty Lance Lynn to the White Sox in exchange for Dane Dunning and prospect Avery Weems. Dunning is still technically prospect eligible I believe, but he had a nice season for Chicago in 2020 (3.97 ERA in 34 innings). He was a first round pick back in 2016 by Washington.
Lynn has been nothing short of excellent since he joined the Rangers in 2019. He’s thrown 292 1/3 innings and recorded a 3.57 ERA and 3.43 FIP. This came right after the Yankees had acquired him mid-2018, by the way. He would have been a really good fit back in pinstripes.
Seven years flew by, huh? Masahiro Tanaka’s initial big league contract has come to an end, and what a success it was. Tanaka posted a 3.74 ERA (114 ERA+) in 1054 1/3 innings and was remarkably durable in spite of a partial UCL tear. Now, the Yankees are left with a big decision this offseason: re-sign the 32 year-old, or let him move on? Before we get to that, let’s break down the righty’s 2020 campaign.
Another strong season in spite of an inauspicious start
Masahiro Tanaka was hit in the head with a line drive from the bat of Giancarlo Stanton during a simulated game.pic.twitter.com/biProHbgeK
My goodness was that scary. Tanaka began the regular season on the injured list as he went through the league’s concussion protocol. Fortunately for him, his recovery went smoothly and he made his regular season debut on August 1st, just a little over a week after Opening Day.
Remarkably, Tanaka didn’t miss a beat. His first start was an abbreviated one against the Red Sox, but his second start was Tanaka at his best. He threw five one-hit innings against the Rays in Tampa Bay and struck out five batters.
Even though the Yankees exited the playoffs way earlier than we expected or wanted, there were two silver linings: Giancarlo Stanton raking and Gerrit Cole dealing. The latter was highlighted all the more by the general non-dealing of the rest of the Yankee rotation. And as the Yankees stare into the void of the offseason, I find myself thinking a lot about their starting rotation and pitching staff in general.
Over the last little while, the Yankees’ pitching strength has been their bullpen. Year after year, they have a solid relief core and that’s true now. Hell, their set-up guy in Zach Britton would be the closer on just about every other team, and the same might be true of Chad Green. This pattern seems to work for them; they win lots of games and most always make the playoffs. But the problem is that once they get there, their super-bullpen is a little less super, having been used to the point of being gassed by October.
A solution to this is for the Yankees to go after another reliever in free agency or a trade to deepen the bullpen. It’s a solution the Yankees could easily and rightly pursue. However, I think they need to take a different course: strengthening the rotation.
Yes, there’s a hot take for you, folks: a baseball team needs to strengthen its starting pitching. The Yankees have attempted this, with varying degrees of success, over the last few years. They’ve traded for Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, JA Happ, and James Paxton. And, of course, they signed Gerrit Cole. But for the most part, these moves just filled out the rotation rather than adding necessary depth to it.
Going in to 2021, the only real sure thing in the rotation is Gerrit Cole. Happ, Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka are all free agents and I’d wager only one of them–likely Tanaka–will ever pitch for the Yankees again. Even if they bring Tanaka back (yes, please), they’ll still be left with questions in the rotation, given Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt’s youth and inexperience as well as Luis Severino’s Tommy John Surgery recovery. As such, the Yankees should sign Tanaka as well as at least one other starter, preferably two.
Signing multiple starters would have a threefold positive effect for the Yankees. First, it would add reliability and predictability to the rotation. We know what the Yankees will get out of Cole and what they would get out of Tanaka. Beyond that, we’re not sure. Second, and this is related to the first, it would give the Yankees a little insurance against the growing pains of Garcia and Schmidt. Sure, signing three starters might push one of them–or both–out of the five man rotation at times, but there will always be room, always be innings to go around. Third, and perhaps most important, is that signing more starters could help give the Yankee bullpen a break.
Given how much the Yankees rely on their bullpen and how vital a strong bullpen is to October success, keeping the relievers well-rested is of the utmost importance. Signing multiple starters can allow for this with more starter-pitched innings in the regular season. Additionally, any extra starters could be deployed out of the bullpen in the playoffs to give the high-leverage arms some rest in a time when rest is scarce.
I’m not saying the Yankees need to go wild and back the truck up for Trevor Bauer–frankly, I’m not convinced of him. But I would like them to bring back Tanaka and bring in some other starters–Marcus Stroman? Charlie Morton? For too long, the Yankees’ pitching success has been predicated upon their bullpen. I’m not sure they can reach the next level while continuing to do that.
Happy Friday, everyone. We’re just a few hours away from Game 5. In the meantime, let’s open up this week’s mailbag. I’m only answering two questions because so many of this week’s questions related to the offseason after losses in Game 2 and Game 3. Let’s wait until the Yankees are actually eliminated (if they are eliminated!) to discuss the 2021 plans.
As always, shoot your questions to viewsfrom 314 [at] gmail [dot] com. Away we go:
Dan asked/suggested: The Yanks need to rethink their bullpen usage. Considering the no off days and the fact that they have only three good relievers, the Yanks should try using starters out of the pen on their throw days. It worked for the Nats last year. Do you think Masahiro Tanaka or JA Happ are up for it?
I understand this sentiment, but the Nationals didn’t have much of a choice last year. The only reliever Washington could really trust was Daniel Hudson. Sean Doolittle too, I suppose. The Yankees have a deeper bullpen that’s really good on paper, inconsistencies aside. And sure, the lack of off days this postseason makes it more difficult on the Yankees’ traditional relievers, but it’s not as if that makes it any easier for starters as well.
It’s also important to point out that Washington really only did this with Patrick Corbin, who came out of the ‘pen five times last October. Yes, Stephen Strasburg relieved in the do-or-die Wild Card Game and Max Scherzer made one bullpen appearance in the NLDS, but that’s it.
Got a few questions to answer as we head into the final weekend of the regular season. Before we dive in, remember to send your questions to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for a chance to be included in a future mailbag. Now, to this week’s questions:
A few people asked: What does the Yankees’ 2021 rotation look like?
People sure love to talk about next year’s team when this season isn’t over, huh? Nonetheless, I’ll oblige.
As you likely know, the Yankees can lose Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and JA Happ in free agency this offseason. That leaves a number of holes to fill, though the team does have enough big league caliber starters to fill out a staff. It just may not be as good as this year (or before this year). The players under contract for 2021: Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King.
Of course, there are caveats with the seven pitchers I just rattled off. Severino is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will start the 2021 season on the injured list. Germán will have just finished his suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy, so who knows how much rust he will have to shake off. Montgomery was a roller coaster this season. King was terrible. Schmidt will have just one big league start to his name entering 2021. At least Cole and Deivi looked great.
Now, if all goes well, that group could look pretty good by 2021’s end! Cole and Severino could make for a formidable one-two punch. García and Schmidt have a ton of upside. Germán and Montgomery are more than capable back-end guys, with the former having shown flashes of better than that in 2019.
That said, count on the Yankees reinforcing the rotation this year. For one, I’d bet on Tanaka’s return, but I expect Paxton and Happ to depart. Don’t expect any free agent splurges like Trevor Bauer to replace those guys, though. A trade or middle-market free agent (Kevin Gausman? Marcus Stroman? Mike Minor?) signing seems more likely. Here’s what I envision as the Yankees’ ideal rotation come Opening Day 2021:
By season’s end, you can slot in Sevy. Forget about who that boots from the staff as that sorta thing always seems to sort itself out. Injuries and unexpected performances happen.
Paul asks:Should Luke Voit’s contract be extended?
Everyone at this here blog loves Voit, but this answer is a pretty easy no. Voit turns 30 in February and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. It stinks for the first baseman, but he was a late bloomer who won’t hit the open market until his mid-thirties. That leaves the Yankees very little motivation to extend him beyond 2024 at the moment.
Voit’s now a lifetime 138 wRC+ hitter in over 1,000 big league plate appearances and should still get paid fairly well in arbitration. He’s going to be super-two eligible this offseason and should get a nice raise over the near league-minimum pay he’s gotten over the last couple of seasons. More traditional stats like home runs and RBIs pay in arbitration, and Luke’s got those aplenty.
Aside from age and team control considerations, I think Voit’s position and health are detractors from any extension. I just don’t see much of a reason to lock up a 1B/DH type when the team already has a number of those guys on the roster already. Additionally, though Voit has played through “foot stuff” this season, I can’t help but worry about his health over the long run. Last year’s oblique injury really held him back too.
Dan asks: I recall speculation before the season started that players who were on teams that were clearly eliminated would be compelled to opt-out, to avoid playing in meaningless games. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Are you surprised at all?
I’m a little surprised, but I think that there are two big reasons we haven’t seen a bunch of opt-outs.
First, The expanded playoffs have definitely played a big part here. 21 of the league’s 30 teams are still alive with just three games remaining. Had the league stuck to 10 playoff teams for this season, perhaps we’d see a lot more guys bowing out early.
Additionally, perhaps players have become more confident in the league’s health protocols as the season’s gone on. The amount of positive tests and team-wide outbreaks has slowed down the stretch. Earlier this season, it was a lot easier to imagine players dropping out as playoff hopes dwindled because of the numerous positive tests and postponements.
All that said, one high profile player has opted out this week: Andrelton Simmons. The Angels (26-31) are technically still alive too, though it’ll take a lot going right for them to overcome the Astros (29-28) for second place in the AL West.
Jeremy asks: Gio Urshela is the man. I’m hoping you can help me understand something about his advanced stats (and advanced stats in general). His Exit Velo (86th percentile), xBA (98th), and xSLG (86th) are elite. Why are those stats so high when his Hard Hit% (56th) and Barrel% (48th) are fairly average? His K% (90th) is pretty elite but I feel like that only explains part of the xBA and not much of anything else. Is it more so because his GB%/FB%/LD% mix (38.3%/19.2%/38.3%) is seemingly much better than the MLB average (45.3%/21.9%/25.7%)?
It’s definitely strange that Gio’s hard hit percentage and barrel percentage aren’t up to snuff with his average exit velocity. I do think that Jeremy is on the right track with the batted ball type mix, but there’s one other thing I’d like to add.
Gio’s distribution of batted ball quality is excellent. He may not have a ton of hard hits or barrels, but he almost never makes weak contact. He also doesn’t get on top of the ball too often either. Further, the “under” or “flare/burner” category isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of those are bloopers that dunk in. Better than a weak hit or chopper that’s almost an automatic out.
We should also keep in mind what this means for Gio’s hard hit and barrel percentages. Remember, a hard hit ball is 95 MPH or greater exit velocity in any direction. Grounders, pop-ups, or line drives can all get the same treatment under hard hit percentage. So just because Urshela isn’t great there doesn’t mean his exit velocity and xStats are inflated. Rather, it appears that Urshela’s distribution of hit quality helps him in the exit velocity department, while his launch angle helps him rarely hit into easy outs.
As Jeremy noted, Gio hits grounders well below league average and hits liners well above league average. Consider that with his hit quality distribution and elite bat-to-ball skills and you can see why Urshela’s had so much success.