My Bold Predictions for the 2016 Yankees

With opening day right around the corner, I thought I’d come up with some bold predictions about this year’s team. I don’t necessarily think these things will happen, but neither does anyone else. If they did, my predictions wouldn’t be very bold. However, I believe any or all of my predictions could conceivably become reality. Incoming.

Ronald Torreyes will produce more WAR than Aaron Judge this year

Over the last couple of years, I’ve built out my KATOH projection system, which uses minor league stats to forecast big league performance. KATOH works pretty well, if I say so myself. But while watching a spring training game a couple of weeks ago, I began to question it all, when Aaron Judge and Ronald Torreyes came to bat in the same inning.

The two of them couldn’t have looked any more different. Judge was a 6-foot-7 and ripped, and just looked like a guy who’d be very good at hitting baseballs. Torreyes, on the other hand, was built like a jockey — short and thin. He looked like a guy who might struggle to hit the ball over the fence, even in batting practice. Sure, I had seen both of these players before and read the scouting reports, but seeing them hit back-to-back was really jarring, especially since KATOH projects Torreyes for more WAR over the next six years than Judge.

It was easy to see why Judge was a first round pick who is the Yankees’ consensus top prospect. It was also easy to see how Torreyes signed for peanuts out of Venezuela and has changed teams seven (!) times in his young career with little fanfare. But of course, we’re not selling jeans here. There’s much more to a player than his appearance, and Torreyes does one thing very well that Judge doesn’t do well at all: make contact.

Neither player figures to play a huge role on the 2016 Yankees, but both will almost certainly see playing time. Torreyes, who cracked the opening day roster as a utility infielder, can play second, third and shortstop, so there are lots of ways he can sneak into the lineup. Judge, on the other hand, needs a bit more seasoning in the minors. But by the time the second half roles around, he figures to be one of the first outfielders on call should any of the team’s regulars go down with injury.

Judge certainly has the higher upside of the two, especially in the long run. Though, I could easily see Judge hitting .222/.243/.389 his first time through the league and wind up with a negative WAR. Joe Borchard — a former top prospect who happened to be one of Judge’s top statistical comps — did just that back in 2002. Meanwhile, Torreyes could hit his ZiPS projection of .268/.302/.351, and wind up with like 0.4 WAR in limited time.

Nick Rumbelow will be a mainstay in the bullpen by the second half

Nick Rumbelow‘s minor league numbers have been filthy. He shot through four levels of the minors in 2014, posting a 2.05 FIP and a 34% strikeout rate. Last year, he followed it up with a 2.72 FIP in Triple-A and 16 serviceable innings out of the Yankee bullpen. Despite his performance, however, Rumbelow isn’t on the prospect radar at all. My FanGraphs colleague Dan Farnsworth left him off of his Yankees prospect list that ran 45 deep, while Baseball America left him off of their top 30.

Rumbelow was a late-spring roster cut this year, but he’ll almost certainly be back soon. The Yankees have made it clear they plan to use the last spot or two in their bullpen as a revolving door, just like they did last year. Rumbelow is one of a small army of pitchers who figure to shuttle between the minors and majors this year. Given his minor league performance and mid-90s fastball, I think he has perhaps the best chance of distinguishing himself from the pack.

Luis Severino will have an ERA under 3.00

Luis Severino‘s first tour of big league duty went about as well as anyone could have anticipated. After breezing through the minor leagues, the Dominican-born rookie pitched to an impressive 2.89 ERA in 11 starts down the stretch. His peripheral stats suggest he wasn’t nearly that good, however, as his FIP, SIERA and DRA were all over 3.80.

Unsurprisingly, the projections anticipate Severino’s ERA will regress back to 3.80 this year. But given his stuff, I think he has the potential to blow past the projections. It’s also worth noting that he drastically outperformed his peripherals in his 11 Triple-A starts as well, so perhaps last year’s ERA-FIP differential isn’t as fluky is at looks. Maybe I’m just being an un-objective fanboy, but I’m all in on Sevvy.

At least one of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances will have ERA over 3

Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances are arguably the three best relievers on the planet. Among qualified relievers, they ranked 1st, 3rd and 5th in SIERA over the last two years, and swept the top three in strikeout rate. But relief pitchers are fickle creatures who have a habit of losing their effectiveness with little notice. Looking back at the top relievers from 2014 by SIERA, Brad Boxberger, Sean Doolittle and Greg Holland all ranked in the top eight. Yet, all three of them posted ERAs in the high 3’s last year.

We’re already starting to see some chinks in the armor. Chapman, of course, will miss the start of the season due to his involvement in a domestic dispute. Miller fractured his non-pitching wrist this week. In theory, neither of these incidents should drastically affect their on-field performances. But you never know.

Elite relief pitchers are all sorts of awesome, but at some point, they stop being awesome. One way or another, I fear one of the Yankees ace relievers will stop being awesome this year. Luckily, the Yankees have three awesome relievers, rather than one. So, while it would be unfortunate, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if one of them reverted back to being human.

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Health paramount to Ellsbury’s success in 2016

Two seasons have passed since the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a colossal $153M contract. Those two years have been a disappointment offensively, and with five more years remaining on Ellsbury’s deal, it’s difficult to find reason for optimism. Jacoby’s body has let him down, with various injuries hindering his performance during his time in pinstripes. This isn’t a surprise, as health has always been an issue for the center fielder dating back to his time in Boston.

Since joining the Yankees, Ellsbury has hit .265/.324/.387 (97 wRC+) with 60 stolen bases in 74 attempts. That isn’t the ideal leadoff hitter that the club had hoped him to be. His hitting became such an eyesore that he was fittingly benched in the American League Wild Card game against southpaw Dallas Keuchel last season. All that said, there have been some positives during Ellsbury’s time in pinstripes.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about this very same topic. As you might remember, Ellsbury was having an excellent 2014 season through August. Why? Probably because he was healthy. He was easily the club’s best player until the final month of the season, with a .288/.348/.435 batting line and 37 steals to boot. Then, after spraining his ankle on August 29th, it was all downhill. Returning after just a few games, he played through most of September until he strained his hamstring in late in the month, knocking him out of the last nine games of the 2014 season. Those impressive numbers he had built? Depleted. A full year triple-slash of .271/.328/.419 doesn’t get anyone excited.

In 2015, it took far less time for Ellsbury to break down. On May 20th, a knee injury forced him to the disabled list. To that point of the season, Jacoby was on fire, hitting .324/.412/.372 (124 wRC+) in 170 plate appearances. He returned in early July, but was far from the same player. He closed out the year on an ugly .224/.269/.332 (61 wRC+) run, and one can only wonder if Jacoby ever felt fully healthy, or at least close to it. Lending some credence to this thought, his stolen base attempts seem to hint at him still not feeling comfortable. In 74 games after returning, he sought to outrun the opposing battery only 11 times. Before the injury, he had 19 tries in just 37 games. I don’t think it’s to reach to say something wasn’t right after returning from the disabled list.

Clearly, Ellsbury’s talent hasn’t dissipated. He was great for the vast majority of 2014, and was even better for the first quarter of 2015. As a 32 year-old, he’s still theoretically in his prime. Yes, it’s the very tail end of his prime, but there’s still some gas left in the tank. Can he stay healthy in 2016, though? Considering what’s occurred in recent seasons, it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, with some good fortune medically, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see Ellsbury rebound this season.

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Updated Luxury Tax Payroll Tracker

Yesterday, the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman avoided arbitration and settled at an $11.325M contract for the 2016 season. The new closer was the last of the club’s non pre-arbitration eligible players without a contract, making today a good time to update the luxury tax payroll tracker included in the navigation bar above.

Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next week, and it seems unlikely that the Yankees will make any other significant moves, so the payroll should remain steady from now until Opening Day. In addition to updating the Google spreadsheet in the navigation bar, I’ve also embedded it below. Continue reading

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Yankees get discount on Aroldis Chapman and his baggage

Perhaps the Yankees took Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” to heart this offseason. After acquiring Starlin Castro a few weeks ago, the Yankees took the plunge to obtain closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds yesterday. Castro, as I noted before, has been involved in a couple of off-field incidents. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is currently investigating Chapman for his role in a domestic violence incident at his home in Florida. The details are murky, but the Yankees struck a deal with Cincinnati anyway. Indeed, it appears the Yankees would prefer to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

There’s nothing to say about Chapman’s ability that you probably don’t already know. At any rate, I’ll provide a few tidbits. He’s one of the top relievers in baseball, if not the very best. The Cuban lefty possesses the highest velocity fastball in the big leagues, regularly hitting 100 MPH. He has the highest strikeout rate of all-time (42.9%), minimum 300 innings pitched. Finally, his career ERA and FIP are 2.17 and 1.97 respectively. There’s no need to look any further to understand why the Yankees wanted him.

But for as incredible of a pitcher Chapman is, he might be just as bad of a person. After a trade that would have shipped him to the Dodgers fell through, a police report of a domestic violence incident at Chapman’s Florida home trickled out to the media. Tim Brown and Jeff Passan have the summary of the police report on Yahoo. Chapman was not arrested for his involvement, but that doesn’t necessarily save him from scorn. It’s more or less of a he-said-she-said, but there was clearly an argument that incited some sort of physical altercation between Chapman and his ex-girlfriend. We probably won’t ever know if Chapman choked his girlfriend and pushed her against a wall (her claim), or if he “poked” her in the shoulder and she fell to the ground (Chapman’s claim). Nonetheless, either action is in poor judgement. No, there weren’t any signs of injury on Chapman’s ex-girlfriend, but that is by no means a saving grace. That’s not all, though: in an apparent fit of rage, Chapman fired eight bullets in his garage while alone. That’s an alarming way to blow off some steam. Oh, and did I mention that the couple’s child was in the home during the entire confrontation? Yikes. Continue reading

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Another day, another trade: Justin Wilson sent to Detroit for prospects

Less than 24 hours since dealing Adam Warren for Starlin Castro, the Yankees made another trade this evening. Another pitcher is on his way out of the Bronx, this time its southpaw Justin Wilson in exchange for two prospects from the Tigers. The minor leaguers are Luis Cessa and Chad Green, both right-handed starting pitchers apparently acquired to add some rotation depth in Triple-A.

Wilson’s stint was short in the Bronx, previously acquired in a swap with the Pirates last offseason for Francisco Cervelli. His 2015 performance was rock solid in pinstripes: he pitched to a 3.10 ERA/2.69 FIP in 61 innings (1.5 fWAR) and a superb 27.1% strikeout rate. The lefty flamethrower averaged 95 MPH on his fastball and had no problems retiring both right and left-handed hitters. It didn’t take long for him to become the de facto “seventh-inning guy”, and he should take on a similar or better role in Detroit.

Philosophically, this is a peculiar trade for the Yankees. We’re used to them being the side moving prospects for a major leaguer, not vice versa. Furthermore, it’s not like Wilson was expensive or nearing free agency. He’s under control for the next three seasons, and projected to make $1.3 million in arbitration. That’s peanuts. Continue reading

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Yankees get their second baseman in Starlin Castro

Since Robinson Cano departed in 2013, second base has been a black hole for the Yankees. However, in 2016, the Yankees won’t go with a has-been like Brian Roberts or Stephen Drew in a lackluster attempt to fill the void. Tonight, the Yankees traded Adam Warren and a player to be named later to the Cubs in exchange for Starlin Castro, who will be the regular second baseman going forward. He’s certainly not Cano, but he is a young and controllable player with upside.

Castro, 26 in March, is an aggressive contact hitter with below average power from the right side. He’s mixed in a couple of poor offensive seasons (2013 and 2015) with otherwise above average performances in his other four years. In 2011 and 2014 in particular, Castro was a top offensive shortstop. Despite a couple of crevasses, his track record says he’s capable of being one of the better hitting second basemen in baseball. It’s just a matter of the Yankees getting him on the right track. Continue reading

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Our meaningless 2015 free agent predictions

When I sent the forthcoming spreadsheet to Chris to fill out, he responded: “It’s that time of year to make incorrect free agent predictions! Putting our supposed knowledge up against a random number generator!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Nobody really cares where we think the market’s prizes will land. But here we are, publishing it publicly anyway. We’ll keep track as we go. Just one note: we’re using Fangraphs’ top-82 free agents list from their contract crowdsourcing piece.

The google doc isn’t embedding properly on the homepage, so you’ll need to click “continue reading” in order to see it. Continue reading

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Musing free agency strategy this winter and beyond

In the last year, the Yankees have become a younger team. Players like Nathan Eovaldi, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird have come along and entrenched themselves as long-term assets integral to the organization’s future success at the highest level. Yet, the veteran identity of the club isn’t going away just yet. Much of the roster is still burdened with aging stars at high salaries. Some of them still productive, but merely remnants of their prime seasons that earned them their current megadeals.

Entering the offseason, perhaps the Yankees greatest obstacle to improvement is that no large contracts are expiring. Given Hal Steinbrenner’s desire to compete below the luxury tax threshold, this doesn’t appear to bode well for the club’s chances in the free agent market. Accounting for projected arbitration raises, expiring contracts, and changes in annual salary for current deals, only a hair less than $1 million has been freed up in comparison to last year.

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From that alone, it’s hard to envision the Yankees repeating their post-2008 or post-2013 free agency sprees. Doing so would require not only a huge year-over-year increase in payroll, but also a much larger luxury tax bill. So, if not now, when will there be a greater amount of financial freedom? Look no further past 2016:

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Even more payroll is available after 2017:

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Note: Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley, and Nathan Eovaldi are free agents after 2017 but not included above. Arbitration increases not considered in previous two tables.

That’s anywhere between roughly $91 and $113 million coming off the books in the in the next two seasons (depending on Tanaka’s opt-out). Unless the club goes all-in this winter, the Yankees are set up to be big players in the post-2016 and post-2017 free agent classes. Exciting! Yet, the players set to hit the market those years aren’t quite as enticing as those available in the in the coming months.

This year, the biggest names available are David Price, Jason Heyward, and Justin Upton. Zack Greinke could opt-out. Others like Ben Zobrist, Howie Kendrick, Jordan Zimmerman, and Yoenis Cespedes will be highly sought-after too.

After 2016, the list isn’t as deep. If healthy, Stephen Strasburg will be the darling of next offseason’s free agent crop. There will be numerous veteran position players available, albeit past their primes (following is not wholly inclusive): Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Gomez, Jay Bruce, and Justin Turner. The bullpen crop should feature closers Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Drew Storen. Fast forward to post-2017, and it’s harder to forecast the quality of the crop. Sure, Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez pop out, but remember that a lot can change in the next two years.

Despite payroll flexibility not improving for another season, perhaps ownership will be willing to foot a larger tax bill next season with knowledge that significant salary comes off the books in the next two years? As I mentioned before, it seems unlikely. Considering recent behavior, it appears the team will only spend if money is newly available. When the Yankees added Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran, players like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson were out the door. This year, there isn’t a parallel. Plus, if Hal is truly committed to getting below the $189 million luxury tax threshold, signing big names this winter wouldn’t help the team meet that goal even considering some of the expiring deals in the next two years.

While I certainly don’t expect the team to be big players in the free agent market, no Yankees free agent signing should ever come as a surprise. This is the Yankees after all, even if they haven’t acted like it lately. For now, the safe bet is that the Yankees take a tact similar to last season by trying to acquire young and controllable talent. Yes, there are some exciting names available in free agency this offseason that the franchise would be all over historically, but the apparent financial strategy of now doesn’t mesh with making a big splash in the coming months.

Arbitration estimates via Matt Swartz. Other contract data via Baseball Prospectus.

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Reconciling postseason expectations as a Yankees fan

I’m going to the game tonight. I’m pretty excited to be able to watch some playoff baseball in the Bronx for the first time in two years (spare me the spoiled comments), but I’m also nervous that this could be the last game of the season. I hate the feeling of no more Yankees baseball to watch until Spring Training (or any baseball, for that matter). The playoffs are great, but also bittersweet in that there will be no more baseball to watch in about a month, whether or not the Yankees move on.

Depending on how far the Yankees advance, proclamations will be made about the degree of success the team had in 2015. Generally, the mantra is World Series or bust. I’ve wrote before that such logic is silly, even for an organization as rich as the Yankees. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that watching the regular season unfold with reasonable expectations is much more enjoyable than demanding perfection. Setting World Series victory as an ultimatum on a yearly basis drains from the fun of the sport, and makes actually accomplishing the feat more of a relief than anything.

So whatever happens tonight, I still will be happy with what the Yankees accomplished in 2015. An argument can be made that the front office and ownership has been a letdown since 2012, but 2015 has already been filled with plenty of satisfying stories. Yes, you can still enjoy this team even if you’re pissed that Stephen Drew played too much or that they didn’t acquire David Price at the deadline. Whether it’s the comebacks of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the emergence of Luis Severino and Greg Bird, or the blossoming of Didi Gregorius, there’s been a lot to enjoy the past six months.

Virtually every other team in the postseason bracket is more talented, younger, and deeper than the Yankees. That’s indirectly a condemnation of the front office, but it’s also a credit to the on-field personnel for making it to this stage. If they make a run over the next few weeks, it’s gravy. It’s odd to say, but the Yankees probably shouldn’t have been here. Yes, that same team that seemed to be running away with the division back in July probably deserved the same fate as the 2013 and 2014 clubs.

This isn’t to say that I’d be satisfied with the same expectations next year. I expect improvement. I expected the improvement in this past offseason, but that didn’t really materialize. Rather, a lot went right for this team in 2015, despite some of the unfortunate injuries near the end of the season. I certainly hope the Yankees don’t expect A-Rod or Teixeira to carry the team again in 2016. But that isn’t important right now. We can worry about that in the winter. With first pitch just a few hours away, the Yankees have a clean slate. Time to sit back and root for a deep postseason run, while also appreciating what this team did despite the mediocre projections.

Go Yankees.

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Planning for the Wild Card Game Starter

Barring a wild finish to the regular season, the Yankees will host the American League Wild Card playoff against the runner-up in the Western Division one week from tomorrow. That allows Joe Girardi and his staff a few days to align a starting pitcher for said do-or-die game. Lining up Masahiro Tanaka for the start would be the easy decision had he not tweaked his hamstring recently. He is expected to make one more start, presumably on a date to set him up to potentially pitch in the one game playoff next week. Nonetheless, expect the Yankees to have a contingency plan in order.

At the moment, the starters on September 30th (Wednesday) and October 1st (Thursday) are the ones to watch for next Tuesday’s pivotal game. The starter on the Wednesday would have an extra day of rest for the Wild Card game, while the pitcher the following day would scheduled for normal rest. CC Sabathia last pitched on Friday, and thus would be on regular rest for Wednesday the 30th. However, the starter for that evening is TBA, so Tanaka is certainly in play for that game. Adam Warren would be on normal rest for Thursday the 1st, but the Yankees have that night listed as TBA as well.

Warren and Ivan Nova can be disregarded as potential starters for next Tuesday. That leaves the team with Tanaka, Sabathia, Luis Severino, and Michael Pineda. Tanaka is the favorite assuming good health. Severino and Pineda are likely 2a. and 2b. If Sabathia is truly under consideration, it’s as a nostalgia candidate despite solid performance recently. Continue reading

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