Monday Morning Musings: 4/18/16

Two weeks down, many more to go.  The Yankees snapped their pesky losing streak yesterday with a 1-run win over the Mariners.  They've got another off-day today before welcoming the A's and Rays to town for the rest of this week.  6 games this week, all at home.  That's a helluva good opportunity to turn this recent offensive slump around and get back over .500.  Here are some thoughts on the happenings over the first 2 weeks: - It was good to see Alex Rodriguez get off the schneid with his 2-run homer to left to get the scoring started yesterday.  It was even better to see him do it against a fastball, which has given him plenty of problems over the first 10 games.  According to Brooks Baseball, A-Rod has seen 44 4-seam fastballs so far and has swung and missed at over 20% of them.  He's also swung and missed at over 13% of the 2-seamers he's seen, so clearly the heat is giving him some trouble.

Last year he surprised a lot of people by showing good bat speed and squaring up a lot of good fastballs.  This year it's been the exact opposite.  Iwakuma doesn't exactly throw smoke either, so I'd still like to see A-Rod do some damage against something moving 94, 95, 96 like he did so often last season.  Hopefully he can use yesterday as a springboard to correct whatever's been causing the early fastball struggles.

- Speaking of fastballs, it was better than good to see the return of Masahiro Tanaka's FB velocity yesterday.  He threw 10 4-seamers and averaged 93.2 MPH on those pitches, maxing out at 94.5.  He also hit 93 with his sinker a few times, both of those values far above what he was throwing in his first 2 starts.  We heard Larry Rothschild say recently that Tanaka needs to stop thinking so much on the mound and trust his arm and his stuff.  Perhaps yesterday was the first instance of him taking that advice and letting it go with the heater.  He looked like a much different pitcher yesterday than he did in his first 2 starts, like he wasn't holding anything back.  If he can consistently stay 92-94 with his fastball, it's going to make the rest of his offspeed stuff that much more effective.

- Carlos Beltran certainly looks like he's picked up right where he left off last year.  After hitting .292/.364/.513 in the second half, he's off to a .341/.357/.610 start in his first 11 games.  He's not going to sustain that line over the whole year or even the rest of this month, but the hot start and the positive eye test is an encouraging sign that he can remain productive in this final year of his deal.  He looks completely relaxed and balanced at the plate, and his at-bats more than anybody else on the team's seem to end with hard contact.

- On the opposite end of that spectrum, the bench production has been lacking in the early going.  Dustin Ackley doesn't have a hit in 8 plate appearances, Aaron Hicks only has 1 in 13, and Austin Romine hasn't made anybody forget that he's Austin Romine.  The only player swinging a decent bat off the bench is Ronald Torreyes, who is 6-12, and he was expected to be the weakest offensive link of the bench group.  It could just be a matter of adjusting to irregular playing time and I'm sure Joe is going to start working Hicks in more to keep his outfield starters fresh, but it would be nice to see these guys hit a little bit when they're in the game.

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No Need To Rush To Judge-ment In The Outfield

[caption id="attachment_80384" align="aligncenter" width="375"] Courtesy of the AP[/caption] (That was my attempt at matching Stacey's title from the other day.  It failed, I know)

Aaron Judge has been on the fast track since he was one of the Yankees' multiple 1st round picks in 2013.  He breezed through the low-level Minors the way you would expect an experienced college hitter to, and he reached Triple-A last year after another successful short stint at Trenton.  Along the way Judge drew plenty of praise from scouts for being a better all-around hitter than they thought, and that added in with the rest of his impressive skill set surely helped build him to the unanimous top 100 prospect he is heading into this season, top 50 or top 20 in some cases.

Predictably, Judge felt some growing pains when he reached Triple-A last year.  Better, more experienced pitchers were able to exploit holes in his swing caused by his giant frame, and the talk surrounding Judge this spring focuses almost exclusively on the work he has done and will continue to do to close up those holes.  They'll likely never be completely eliminated, natural byproduct of Judge's genetics, but to truly reach his potential Judge needs to be able to handle better pitching and not settle into a low-average/high-strikeout profile.

Based on the early MLB success of top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird last season, the unspoken hope and expectation among fans and possibly the Yankee front office is that Judge will be better in his return trip to SWB this year, his swing and hitting approach will improve, and he will be primed to take over the right field job sometime later this season.  But in seeing how the Yankees have constructed their roster, I wonder if that accelerated timeline is still necessary.  The way I see it, the Yankees might be better served giving Judge more time in Triple-A to work on his hitting.  They're certainly deep enough in the outfield to do it.

We know who the starting three in the Major League outfield are going to be, but look at everybody else on the roster.  The Yanks have added Aaron Hicks as the 4th outfielder and he can play all 3 positions.  They've got Dustin Ackley in the mix, and while he's expected to take over primary backup first base duties he can also handle an outfield corner.  If anybody gets hurt, they've got Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Ben Gamel on standby on the 40-man to step in.  Remember that Judge is not on the 40-man yet, so the reality is he's pretty far down on the depth chart right now.

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Trying to Decipher the Yankees' Plan

The New York Yankees have behaved very differently in the past few offseasons than they have at any point in recent memory. Their transactions have been aimed at acquiring young players who have many years under team control and should theoretically have their best seasons ahead of them. They have not been in the conversation for any big money players despite there being some very good ones available this winter. They're not even in on small money guys either. Clearly the Yankees aren't a championship caliber team at the moment, with questions everywhere, and they're not aggressively trying to fill those holes. The only conclusion that leads us to is that the Yankees are trying to rebuild and winning is not a priority right now. The Justin Wilson for Luis Cessa and Chad Green trade perfectly exemplifies exactly what the Yankees are doing right now. When Brian Cashman tells you the team is trading a quality reliever because he is going to make some money soon, that tells you all you need to know.

"Wilson is an arbitration-eligible player with three years of control who is entering the money making years," said Cashman. "I get two starters that when their service clock starts are going to have upwards of 12 years of control between them in an area of need for us."

Wilson was a big part of the Yankees' bullpen strength last year. Maybe Jacob Lindgren and James Pazos can do just as well, but there is no guarantee for sure. The Yankees were short on innings last year and they've already traded away two pitchers who gave them quality innings.

It's hard to believe they traded Wilson over a few million dollars, but that's what Cashman says. The Yankees are under-spending on payroll, as pointed out here by E.J. The Yankees' old business model gave them a chance to win every single season. It didn't guarantee them a championship, but it guaranteed a legit championship shot, which is more than the team can say now. Despite the mainstream media narrative of the changing rules making that model obsolete, it would still work the same if the Yankees spent what the Dodgers are, which they can easily do and go beyond.

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Quick Hit: Don't Expect A Lot Of Noise From The Yankees This Week

The 2015 Winter Meetings get started today, and the early action on the free agent market last week has got the hot stove boiling and the rumor mill turning quickly heading into the week's festivities.  This could be a very busy few days on both the free agent and trade fronts, with multiple teams looking to make big moves. The Yankees are not one of those teams, at least not according to what they've been saying publicly.  Brian Cashman declared that the Yankees' money "has been directed and committed already" on Friday, and he followed that up by saying ""we're not in a position right now to take a shot at anything that comes along... " when he arrived in Nashville yesterday.  The messages in these statements are pretty simple: the Yankees aren't willing to spend top dollar on the free agent market and they aren't willing to part with top prospects on the trade market.

If that's the case, and we have little reason to think otherwise based on previous statements by Cashman and other front office members, then it's going to be a pretty quiet and boring week for Yankee fans.  Normally I'd be quick to remind everybody of the smokescreen the Yankees like to throw up in front of the media when discussing their offseason plans, but this rhetoric from Cash doesn't ring as a statement designed to mask the team's true intentions.  This is the continuation of a plan that the Yankees have been publicly pushing for over a year now, and there's little reason to expect that they will change it now when they're so close to getting some of those big payroll chunks off the ledger.

Which is not to say that staying the course and avoiding the hottest parts of the stove is exclusively a bad thing.  While there are plenty of players who would fit the Yankees' needs if they hadn't already resigned themselves to not spending, the price boom on the second and third-level starting pitching markets has been insane.  I wouldn't want to spend 5/90 on Jeff Samardzija or even 3/36 on J.A. Happ regardless of what the team's spending restrictions were, so Cash continuing to look elsewhere for more rotation depth is fine by me.

It's incredibly frustrating to see the Yankees willingly put a halt to their biggest competitive advantage, but this is Hal's plan and he certainly seems like he's ready to stick to it.  He's got Cashman getting ahead of the MSM spin cycle and reciting the company line, he's got a roster that's mostly set even without any additional upgrades, and he's got the new LT threshold off in the distance.  That all adds up to a quiet Winter Meetings in the making if you ask me, so don't be shocked or too disappointed if that's what we get.

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Quick Hit: Yankees Get Their 2015 Luxury Tax Bill

Short but important story that I didn't get to yesterday.  The final team salary information for the 2015 season was released recently, which means it's time to figure out the big spenders' luxury tax bills.  Yay, competitive balance!! Via Bob Nightengale, the Yankees' bill will be $26 million.  While that represents the highest total the team has paid since 2009, it still doesn't touch the team record of $34.1 million set back in 2005 and it wasn't the highest total for this year.  That honor goes to the Dodgers, who will have to pay a new MLB record $43.7 million on a final team payroll of just under $300 million.  The Red Sox and Giants will also pay small taxes.

It's funny that '05 remains the team record for luxury tax payment, as that represents a point in time when the Yankees were at their big spending best.  Those times have changed to the inconsistent, penny pinching ways of today, and more than ever it seems like the Steinbrenners are operating with getting under the LT threshold in mind.  The current CBA expires after next season and that threshold is sure to get bumped up to at least $200 million with the way revenues and league-wide payrolls have grown.  The Yankees will have a ton of money coming off the books then, and if things continue to go the way they are this offseason they'll have a crop of top prospects breaking into MLB full time to provide uber-cheap replacements for those departed big money players.

So the LT price tag for this year may look deceiving, and I'm sure it'll be enough for the beat guys to continue to ignore the lack of spending and payroll expansion in conjunction with booming revenue numbers, but please don't allow yourselves to be fooled by this.  Don't start thinking that this is a sign Hal is willing to open the checkbook this offseason because he's not.  It's all about getting under that threshold and he's just biding his time until he can.

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The Future Is (Finally) Now For The Yankees

At this time last year, Greg Bird was a few weeks into his promotion from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton.  Yesterday he was batting 5th and starting at first base in the Yankees' Major League lineup, and hitting 2 2-run home runs to propel the Bombers to a series sweep of the Twins. At this time last year, Luis Severino was also with the Trenton Thunder and was in the process of returning from the DL and making a few short starts before the end of the Minor League season.  This year he's already a key part of the Major League rotation after getting called up 2 weeks ago, and in his last start on Sunday he mostly held the best offense in baseball down for 6 innings using only his fastball.

For years Yankee fans have called for the team to re-commit to player development and build the franchise from within.  The game has changed since the late 90s-early 2000s heyday of using big free agent signings and blockbuster trade deadline deals to build a winning team, and the Yankees were among the last teams to recognize that and get with the times.  It's been a slow and seemingly fruitless process over the last few years as the front office has tweaked its MiL development approach, but this season has been the first big harvest from this current crop of prospects and what a harvest it's been.

Bird and Severino are just the latest and highest profile prospects in a long and continuous line that's fed up to the 25-man roster this year.  We've seen Mason Williams and Ramon Flores come up and look more than capable in small injury replacement sample sizes.  We've seen Slade Heathcott come up and dazzle for a few games after Ellsbury went down before falling victim to another injury of his own.  Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder have gotten looks in the infield as the Yankees searched for an upgrade over their entrenched-below-the-Mendoza-Line second baseman.  John Ryan Murphy has established himself as a legitimate Major League backup catcher and in some respects may already be a better defensive catcher than Brian McCann.  And let's not forget about the Triple-A bullpen carousel.  The Yankees have had an endless supply of high-velocity relief arms to fortify the back end of the 'pen and they've used that supply brilliantly.

Some of those players are in the typical mid-20s rookie age range where guys either get the call or settle into life as a Quad-A regular, so in their cases it's been the natural progression of moving through the minors.  But that's not the case with Bird and Severino.  Bird is only 22 years old and Severino is only 21.  They were already young for Triple-A before they got called up and they're even younger for their level now that they're in the show.  A few years ago, it would have been crazy to think about the Yankees promoting young players this quickly and calling them up to be regular contributors in the lineup.  This year it's not only common practice, it's been the right decision.  Bird and Severino aren't young pups who are in over their heads.  They're polished, mature, confident, good baseball players.  They've shown in small samples that they're capable of hanging at this level and producing in the midst of a playoff run, and the Yankee front office and MiL development team deserve a lot of credit for having confidence in them and choosing to use them to help their playoff charge rather than trade them away for a more "proven" player.

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The Myth About "Bad" Big Contracts

[caption id="attachment_75237" align="aligncenter" width="597"] Courtesy: NY Newsday[/caption] The prevailing wisdom around the Yankees is that big contracts like the ones Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have are what is killing the team. In reality, those contracts have been fine and fans in general worry way too much about them.

I never get fans who would rather see the money go into the pockets of the owner than into the players'. The difference in the Yankees over the last two plus seasons is that they've been spending less and the performance on the field has suffered. Sure, Hal Steinbrenner fooled most people with his shopping spree in the 2013-14 offseason. People didn't realize how much money came off the books and that the payroll was only about $120 million to begin that offseason, so the Yankees didn't really go above and beyond at all.

The business model the Yankees used from 2001 through 2012 absolutely worked. The lack of championships are lamented, but the reality is that the Yankees put themselves in the best position to bring home rings every season winning 95 plus games. Short sample sizes in the playoffs happen, but those were some dominant baseball teams that were awesome to watch. You have to build for the long haul of the 162-game season before you can worry about what happens in the postseason.

What we're seeing now with the Yankees is frugality that has hurt the product on the field. Sure, Steinbrenner will sell you that his payroll is almost $220 million and that the team is doing everything in its power to win a championship. It's all a bunch of nonsense. He will also sell you that you don't need a $200 million payroll to win a championship, which is also nonsense. Sure, in theory it's true, but why not use all the resources and advantages that you clearly have? It makes zero sense.

The Yankees have been blown away by the Dodgers by over $50 million in total payroll. According to William Juliano of The Captains Blog, the Yankees are only 11th in payroll and luxury tax as a percentage of team revenue at a little over 45 percent, which is right about the MLB average. From 2003-2005 the Yankees were over 80 percent and from 2006-2008 over 65 percent.

How much different would the Yankees look with Max Scherzer this season? I think they would be the clear cut favorites in this horrid division and going into a playoff series with Scherzer, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda would give them as good a shot as anybody at winning a championship. Most people scoffed at the idea of signing Scherzer because of the length and the money of the contract, but I don't think Nationals fans are scoffing at his 1.67 ERA and his 72 strikeouts to only nine walks. The reality is that the Yankees could have easily afforded Scherzer, and the likelihood is that he will be so good over the first four to five years of the deal that it will be worth it. Heck, the Yankees didn't even seem to consider guys like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez who were great values.

The 10-year, $275 million contract Rodriguez signed is portrayed as the worst thing ever when really the Yankees have gotten more than their money's worth from it when you factor in what he brings in ticket sales and merchandise. According to Fangraphs' WAR-to-salary dollar conversion rate, Rodriguez has earned $132 million of the $179 million he has been paid from 2008-2013. This is with two big injuries in 2012 and 2013. When you factor in the championship the Yankees won on his back in '09 and off-the-field earnings, Rodriguez has probably covered the $47 million missing. So far this season, FanGraphs has Rodriguez earning almost half of his $21 million salary already.

Teixeira is viewed as another albatross contract that hasn't worked out when Fangraphs has him actually outperforming his contract. Teixeira has been worth $111.7 million since 2009 while he has been paid $107.5 million. This is even with the wrist injury and the fact that he was basically worth nothing in 2013 and 2014. His performance in the first four years (worth $32.7 million in 2009, $20.4 million in 2010, $32.4 million in 2011 and $18.3 million in 2012) covered for his two injured years. Also, Teixeira is off to a fabulous start this year even in the second to last year of his contract.

Also, everybody knows that CC Sabathia's first big contract was well worth it as well with the extension being a different story.

It's no coincidence that the Yankees have been mediocre since they started to put lackluster effort into spending and winning. The only way it will change is if the Yankees completely bottom out -- which is unlikely in this division-- or if fans stop buying the company line. The Yankees are still printing money, folks. Don't worry about their bottom line and start worrying about the lackluster product on the field.

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Adam Warren v. Dave LaPoint (and Starter v. Reliever Velocity)

[caption id="attachment_75036" align="aligncenter" width="525"]Warren vs BAL II Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] Ever have a job you were performing decently, but that still left you wondering every day if a demotion is coming? Adam Warren does. While he's not killing it, or pitching deep into games, his average of just under 5.5 IP/start isn't awful, and not many teams have both 4th and 5th starters beating Warren's 4.50 ERA / 4.15 FIP. But Chris Capuano's return was sure to cost the rotation spot of one guy a decade younger – either Warren or, it turned out, TJ patient Chase Whitley.

Old Man Capuano versus The Kids reminds me of my favorite obscure baseball quote: rookie Sterling Hitchcock's too-bold yet dead-on blasting of the Yankees' impatience with trusting young starters over crappy vets. Hitchcock is a Yankee immortal to me, but for this quote, not his forgettable pitching:

You hear a lot about our young guys, but then there's no slot for us … It's, "Go back to [AAA] and have a great year, and thanks for coming." It's frustrating because you look at other teams ... and you see you pitched against them in the minors. You say to yourself, "Geez, how does this guy have this job?" … "It's going to take dedication from this ballclub to be willing to give a guy 20-25-30 starts to realize what they've got. I mean, Tom Glavine wasn't a stud his first year. … But it takes dedication to be willing to stay with that guy. From past history, I doubt that will ever happen. As far as I can remember, it's been give a guy six-seven starts, and if he doesn't do anything, then get him out of here and bring in Dave LaPoint.

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On Using These Off-Days To Plan For The Near Future And Improve The Roster

The Yankees had their first scheduled off-day since April 30th yesterday, and it couldn't have come at a better time.  At the end of a stretch that saw them play 30 games in 31 days, they were playing baseball like a tired team that needed a rest.  The bats had gone cold, the bullpen had been worked hard, and there wasn't much energy to their losses during their 1-5 week last week.  Despite that long stretch and rough finish, they still wake up today in first place in the division, with a respectably positive run differential (+15), and with another scheduled off-day on the horizon before they head home for the weekend. The Yankees are still in a good spot, and they're going to hopefully get some more pitching help back in the weeks to come.  I'm confident that 2 days off this week will help bring some life back to those old legs and cold bats.  But to make the most out of this now friendly off-day schedule, I think the Yankees need to do more than rest.  They need to take an honest look at this team and start making plans to improve it.

And I'm not talking about the trade deadline.  That's its own separate thing that is still a while away from becoming a real factor.  I'm simply talking about making changes with the guys they already have that can give the team a better chance to win.  We're basically at the quarter pole of the season right now.  The sample sizes are big enough to tell us who's really getting it done and who isn't.  The Yankees have fallen victim to holding onto guys for way too long the last few years.  They can't make that same mistake this year.

Everybody knows who I'm talking about too.  Stephen Drew.  The guy stinks.  He's hitting worse in May (.505 OPS) than he did in April (.693).  Rob Refsnyder has been tearing the cover off the ball in Triple-A and is up to .307/.371/.438 on the year with much improved defense over the past 2-3 weeks.  If Drew isn't going to hit, he shouldn't be a starter anymore.  It's that simple.  If the Yankees want to give him until the end of the month to start to turn things around, fine.  But if he's still hitting .175 on June 1st, the team needs to reduce his role and give somebody else (Refsnyder) a chance.

How about Garrett Jones?  Granted he only has 39 plate appearances this season and it's hard to get into any kind of good hitting routine with a workload that small, but what has he shown to deserve more consideration?  He's hitting .158/.179/.237, he isn't drawing any walks, and he's been terrible defensively in right field and at first base.  What is he bringing to the table right now?  What is his value?  The Yankees have Ramon Flores hitting .290/.380/.435 and Kyle Roller hitting .273/.395/.512 in Triple-A.  Neither of them are likely to be stars or even above-average regulars at the MLB level, but can they play the positions Garrett Jones plays?  Yes they can.  Could they hit better than his .158/.179/.237 pukeslash?  I'd like to think so.

We're talking about 2 guys in their early-mid 30s who are on the downside of their careers and on 1-year commitments to what amounts to peanuts for the Yankees.  What is the reason for holding onto players like that when they're performing at a below-replacement level?  I understand the concept of giving veteran players a chance to prove themselves, but Drew and Jones have had that chance.  Nobody with eyes, a brain, or a working computer believes Joe when he says Drew is having good at-bats and making good contact.  Cut the good guy routine, be realistic and honest in your evaluations, and dump the dead weight.  This is a business, a business of winning baseball games and making money.  Guys like Drew and Jones help the team do neither.  If they aren't going to start hitting, cut them loose and try to find somebody who can.

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Transition and Tradition

[caption id="attachment_73506" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Judge ST How long until Judge-ment day? Courtesy of USA TODAY Sports[/caption] I have to admit that I am a bit lost. I don't know how to love these Yankees. Oh boy...that doesn't sound very journalistic. Well, heck. I'm not a journalist. I have always written from the point of view of a fan. My name on Twitter should give you a clue. On my site, I stay neutral and write as a fan of baseball as a whole. When I write for IIATMS, I am a Yankee fan. That's what I am. And as such, I don't know how to feel about this 2015 team.

Oh, there are plenty of writers that will tell me how I should feel. The team is old. Our writers have already blown up that notion. The starting pitching is a time bomb. Excuse me, but every rotation in baseball is a time bomb. Any rotation can blow up in the blink of an elbow. I should be dissatisfied because there were no big deals this off season. Hal is sitting on his money and blah blah blah.None of those things are my problem.

My problem is my fan history. I don't go as far back as Lou Gehrig. But I go back as far as Mickey Mantle. And every generation has had its home grown star. We went from Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson to Don Mattingly to the Core Four, exactly?

As I look at the Opening Day lineup, I see one homegrown guy: Brett Gardner. We can probably have a debate on whether or not he is a star. A guy putting up 4 WAR seasons is pretty darned good. But a star? We can probably agree he isn't a superstar. When Brian McCann has a rest, there will be two homegrown guys when John Ryan Murphy plays. I can say for sure that Murphy is not a star and will not be as long as McCann's contract is around.

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