Thoughts Two Weeks Before Pitchers and Catchers Report to Camp

It’s Wednesday, and it is exactly two weeks before pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa for Spring Training. That is very exciting, to me. It’s simultaneously been a very long and very short offseason, if that makes any sense at all. I’m definitely ready for the season to get started. Here’s what’s on my mind.

1. Welcome Aboard, Josh Thole: If you had any doubts left that we’re mired in the depths of the offseason, I’m leading off this thoughts column with the signing of a Triple-A catcher. So, yeah. That’s where we are these days. Anyway, the Post’s Joel Sherman last night reported that the Yankees and Thole agreed to a $600,000 MiLB deal:

As Joel noted, the Yankees also added Erik Kratz and Chris Ianetta this offseason, so they’ll have some Triple-A depth here. Remember, Austin Romine signed a deal with the Tigers, so there’s a bit of a competition for the backup catcher position here. My money has always been on Kyle Higashioka in that competition and it’s still there today. Even more so, really.

Anyway, Thole — who brings back memories of R.A. Dickey’s tenure in Toronto — is a career .242/.313/.306 (73 wRC+) hitter who hasn’t played at the MLB level since 2016. He spent last year in the Dodgers’ and Angels’ farm system. (For what it’s worth, Statcast’s framing metrics have him pegged as a bad framer from 2015-16, though his sample is limited.) My guess is that he mans the Triple-A roster, which we will break down in detail before the season begins, and serves as much-needed depth at an important position. Welcome aboard, Josh.

2. Keeping J.A. Happ: You know, I’m now 100% convinced that the Yankees should just keep J.A. Happ. Sure, if there’s a chance that unloading Happ can bring someone back like Nolan Arenado — unlikely! — then you definitely do it. No doubt about it. But right now, the way I look at it is like this: the only reason to move Happ is to save money. That’s a fair concern! His salary isn’t peanuts for a 5th, 6th, or even 7th starter, but it’s not prohibitive money for the Yankees by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. (By now, you should all know where I stand on the CBT.) But I’m going to play with a much-repeated pitching prospect line and tweak it a bit: There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Pitching Depth.

Besides, I’m still oddly convinced that last year’s weirdness with the ball was a major factor in his struggles. I mean, look at his HR/fly ball rate over the last 5 seasons, with league averages in parentheses:

  • 2015: 9.2%
  • 2016: 11.1%
  • 2017: 12.3%
  • 2018: 13.4%
  • 2019: 18.3%

Now, let’s be real: that’s an actual bad trend. No amount of playing with the numbers can change that. He is an aging pitcher — the end can come really quickly and out of nowhere — with less velocity and spin on his fastball. Not to mention, this is not the most encouraging spray chart I’ve ever seen:

That is all true and can’t be waved away. However, with that said, that’s a huge jump. Huge! I think it would be irresponsible to say that the ball wasn’t a factor in that. (As for whether or not the ball will be the same next year, who can say? Another bang up job by MLB, that is.)

Finally, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that there’s not much coming back for Happ, which is to be expected because of the above paragraph. That’s why I think it makes sense just to hold on to him and see if there’s a dead cat bounce in there. If there isn’t, they can always trade him at the deadline after it’s clear next year’s option won’t vest. No harm, no foul.

3. Bring Me Nolan Arenado: The other day, The Athletic’s Jim Bowden wrote a piece (subs req’d) about the prospect of a Nolan Arenado trade, specifically mentioning the Yankees as a potential landing spot for the superstar 3B. Now, let’s be clear: this is definitely, 100% not happening. I will be shocked if it did. On the other hand, and bear with me here, what if it does?

You don’t have to squint that hard to see parallels to the Giancarlo Stanton situation back in December 2017. Arenado is owed a lot of money, though not quite as much as Stanton — $234 million over the next six seasons compared to $284 over eight seasons for Stanton — and also owns a full no-trade clause. To boot, he’s expressed his displeasure with the direction Colorado is taking, giving him a significant amount of leverage moving forward. That’s why I think so many of the trade proposals we’re seeing on social media, including from Bowden, are a bit absurd.

When was the last time one of these superstars commanded what we thought they would? Remember how the Stanton situation ended: with some low-level prospects and Starlin Castro being sent back to New York with $30 million for the reigning NL MVP. It’s not likely, but it is possible that, if Colorado feels that they have to move now, a similar filtering type situation may occur here, too, with only a few teams realistically positioned to take on that money and therefore mitigating the prospect drain. (The Yankees already have a huge payroll, so I repeat that it’s unlikely, but it’s January. Let me dream.)

Arenado is one of those players that you make space for, as a career .295/.351/.546 (120 wRC+) hitter with stellar defense. You just make room for a guy like that. I’m sure that there would be handwringing about his home/away splits, but it’s insane that we’re still doing that after DJ LeMahieu. Anyway, Nolan Arenado: bring him to me, please and thank you.

4. Mookie Betts and the Red Sox: So, it looks like the Red Sox are really going to trade Mookie Betts, huh? Here’s the latest from Jon Heyman:

Incredible. It’s hard to think of a more self-defeating move than Boston doing this right now (which, by the way, is coming a few weeks after ownership blamed the media for “playing up” the salary issue). Mookie is a bonafide superstar player who has a real argument for being baseball’s second-best player behind only Mike Trout. I mean, look at the fWAR leaderboard from 2017-19:

  1. Mike Trout: 25.2 fWAR
  2. Mookie Betts: 22.4 fWAR
  3. Christian Yelich: 20.0

Betts is incredible. It’s amazing to me that they’re considering moving him at all and not just locking him up. He’s a homegrown superstar who just formed the foundation of the best season* in franchise history, for crying out loud. Besides, I know they’re currently under investigation, but Boston is only one (1) year removed from the best season in their history. They could be good again this year!

Anyway, a people are saying that the Sox trading Betts is bad for the Yankees. To that I say: what? I guess you can make the argument that holding Mookie increases the likelihood that Boston loses him for nothing after the season, but I really don’t care about that. The other argument is that this will allow Boston to restock its depleted farm. I don’t see that happening — again, when was the last time these guys commanded what we thought they would in a trade — and even if it does, I don’t care. Mookie gone means the Yankees have a much, much better chance at winning the division this year. That matters a lot. It’s basically all that matters to me right now, actually.

The 2020 Yankees are, in my estimation at least, the best Yankees team heading into the season in a very, very long time. Their title window is right now. It will never get more open than this. If one of their biggest inter-divisional threats wants to blow it up, more power to them. No Yankee fan should lose sleep over that (unless, of course, you care about one of the league’s richest, most prestigious organizations trading a superstar over made-up financial concerns. But that’s a different story altogether.)

Right now, the only thing stopping me from buying Betts a farewell gift is the fact that the Boston media hasn’t completely committed to a character assassination yet. Once that happens, it’s all over.

5. Re-Litigating Robinson Canó and the 2013 Offseason: I missed the original article, but WEEI’s Lou Merloni had an interesting tweet yesterday. Check it out:

There’s a lot going on there for sure. As a reminder, the Yankees offered seven years and $170 million ($24+ million per year) and he signed a ten-year, $240 million deal with Seattle ($24 million per year). In other words, the Yankees were in the financial ballpark in some respects. It was the length with which they had an issue. Even before considering his decline, I think that was a reasonable decision. Less reasonable is the idea that Cano’s demands were outrageous. Check out his place in the history books for second basemen with 90% of their games logged there:

  • Home Runs: 324 (1st)
  • bWAR: 69.6 (5th)
  • Hits: 2,570 (5th)
  • OPS+: 125 (minimum 3,000 plate appearances)

I could go on and on. The point is that Canó was, at the time, on an inner-circle path to the Hall of Fame — a path he has absolutely continued, even now that he’s slowing down. And he had one of the prettiest swings I’ve ever seen:

The Yankees offered that guy, a homegrown superstar, $20 million and change more than they offered Jacoby Ellsbury. Let that sink in. (I know Canó tested positive for steroids. We can’t ignore that, of course.) Anyway, I am extremely happy with the way the Yankees are set up now. It’s not worth being very angry over this. That said, the Canó situation was absurd at the time and continues to be absurd now. He was worth that deal, and I still think the Yankees should have given it to him.

6. MiLB Coaching Tree: Finally, the Yankees announced their MiLB coaching tree yesterday. Check it out:

I don’t have anything to add to this right now. We’ll do a full preview of the system this year as Opening Day gets closer and that will include the coaching staffs for each level. For now, though, I just wanted to share this. Here’s the good news: this is yet another sign that Spring is just around the corner.

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8 Comments

  1. While Arenado has recently said he feels disrespected by the Rockies (without providing much context,) the whole “it feels like a rebuild” thing from late last season was taken out of context by much of the baseball world.

    full context of that was meant:
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacketkin/2020/01/15/what-rockies-star-nolan-arenado-meant-when-he-said-it-feels-like-a-rebuild/#69c7ecf510e5

  2. If the Yankees can get a bag of peanuts for Happ they do it. Really, if they got nothing at all and had to eat half his salary it would be a no-brainer. At his age, coming off the season he just had, you can’t expect anything much in the way of performance. You can probably get similar if not better results from Mike King. At the same time, the $17 million they are paying him will put the Yankees over the last luxury tax threshold, costing their draft position. It will also prevent them from making mid-season acquisitions. Like it or not, they have a budget – and Happ is a big black hole in that budget.

    • Mungo

      Actually, if they don’t trade him, it increases the likelihood they can make midseason deals. They’d be in more of a danger of doing nothing if they trade Happ and are a few million under the third luxury tax threshold. That likely will make them hesitate to make additional deals at midseason. On the other hand, if they can’t move Happ and enter the season over the threshold, that frees them up for additional deals as long as they’re for players gone at season’s end. It’s not paying a few more million in luxury taxes the Yankees are trying to avoid. It’s going over the third threshold they’re trying to avoid.

      • “Actually, if they don’t trade him, it increases the likelihood they can make midseason deals.”

        How is this true? Pro-rated 2-month salary off-loading at the deadline isn’t often something competing clubs do unless they’ve got a bad contract they’re willing to take on that fits a roster hole, and the Yankees have no roster holes outside of their rotation…

        If you’re saying, for some reason, that people will be more willing to deal around him after a better track-record is established, fine, but that doesn’t signal any truth right now. If JA Happ acts like he did last year, there will be as few (or fewer) takers for him at the deadline as there are now.

        I don’t see how that makes any changes in their trade deadline approach, barring injury (which would most likely effect the guy in his late 30’s before anyone else.)

    • I feel you 100% here. However, I feel like seeing what Happ does under the new pitching regime might be worth exploring.

      That said, I’m 100% behind an early season trade after the inevitable ST pitcher injuries around the league.

  3. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    1. If Thole is the best we can do we’re screwed, Bobby. We’re going to be feeling the loss of Austin Romine for years to come. Gary is never healthy the entire season so that means your starter is Higgy and your backup is a guy who hasn’t played in 3 years. Seahawks tried that with Marshawn Lynch and it didn’t work.

    2. I’m resigned to the fact that we will be keeping him but it would be a big mistake compounding the mistake they made signing him in the first place. He’s a hack. A 38 year old 5 ERA pitcher. Why not give Monty a shot to show what he can do coming off surgery. I’d much rather give a kid a chance than an overpaid senior citizen.

    3. I wouldn’t mind an Arenado but it will be costly and I think Gio has earned the right to follow up his performance from last year. If it gets rid of Bozo the Clint it might be worth it because it will kill two birds with one stone but I just don’t see Hal taking on more payroll. For a decade he saved up his pennies and clipped coupons so he could make one big splash in Gerrit Cole and that’s all he’s going to do for another decade.

    4. If the Dodgers get him they’ve won the World Series so I’d like to see Boston keep him. They won’t be much of a threat even with Mookie. They’re old, slow and bloated much like we were 2013-2016. If they’re smart they’ll trade him like we did Chapman and Miller but they’ve never been that smart, or smaht as they like to say it.

    5. We shoulda signed Robbie and make him a Yankee for life. He never did steroids with us and only did them because he wasn’t hitting HR’s out in Seattle. He woulda been a 1st ballot HOFer with us and transitioned from 2B to DH so the years shouldn’t have been an issue. And we would have never signed that awful Ellsbury. If you could have Cano or Ellsbury you’d take Cano 101 times out of 100. They ended up giving the same contract to Ellsbury, who had done nothing to deserve a contract like that. Now had we signed Cano would we still have gotten Gleyber? Yes and we’d be a lot better right now and possibly had another ring or two on our fingers.

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