Should the Yankees Consider Justin Upton?

[caption id="attachment_79992" align="aligncenter" width="570"]Justin Upton Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] (Editor's Note- This post originally appeared on ESPN's SweetSpot yesterday evening.  Thanks to the mothership for giving us a shout out)

The New York Yankees have yet to add any unrestricted free agents of note this offseason and have made it known that they are waiting until their big contracts come off the books until they go back into the high-priced free agent pool. They have managed to improve through trades for Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman, but not spending any money has left the team still weak in a few areas and with many questions.

There is, however, a free agent out there in his prime who could be exactly what the Yankees need to make another playoff push in 2016.

The top areas of concern may be the middle of the order and right-handed power. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran all turned back the clock in 2015 and were extremely productive when healthy. Rodriguez was the biggest surprise, coming off a full year suspension to hit .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs and a 129 wRC+. Teixeira was having an All-Star season after his wrist was finally healthy, hitting .255/.357/.548 with 31 home runs and a 141 wRC+ until a fractured leg abruptly ended his season at the end of August. Beltran proved he still could produce after playing through an injury in a disappointing first year in the Bronx. He stayed healthy all season and came through with his usual big hits toward the end of the season. Beltran finished 2015 with a .346 wOBA and a 119 wRC+.

Betting on all three to repeat in 2016 is risky, given their advanced ages and injury histories. Once Teixeira went down, so did the Yankees' offense. The lineup lost all balance and it was amazing to see how much it missed him. It was September and the Yankees had other players wearing down, but Teixeira could have made a big difference. The Yankees hit .233/.309/.393 with a 92 wRC+ as a team in September, which showed just how thin a tight rope they were walking when one of their big hitters went down.

For 2016, the Yankees are relying solely on Rodriguez and switch-hitters Teixeira and Beltran for their right-handed power. Castro will help balance the lineup, but doesn't help in the power department. Aaron Hicks could be an overall upgrade over Chris Young, but Young had lethal power from the right side against left-handers. The Yankees traditionally build around lefty power because of their ballpark and that's wise; however, they need more balance when facing tough lefties, as Dallas Keuchel showed in shutting them down in the wild-card game.

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Quick Hit: Girardi Names Chapman The New Closer

Joe Girardi was on YES' "Yankees Hot Stove" show last night with Bob Lorenz and Jack Curry, and he talked a lot about how he plans to utilize his group of new players this season.  Obviously everybody knows what the big story is in there and Joe didn't waste any time addressing it.  He came out and said that Aroldis Chapman will be the closer going into Spring Training this year, with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances serving as co-primary setup men. Not exactly earth-shattering news in and of itself, but noteworthy in that the announcement was a major deviation from Girardi's strategy last year when there was the Betances/Miller closer competition.  As Curry pointed out, Joe waited until May of last season to officially declare Miller the closer.  This season he's making the call over a month before pitchers and catchers report.

Not that there's anything wrong with the decision.  It was assumed that Chapman would be taking over the closer role the minute the Yankees traded for him.  He's been pitching as a closer for a lot longer than Miller, and both Miller and Betances have been wildly successful as primary, 3+ out setup guys.  Now they'll pair up in that role and hopefully build a lockdown bridge to Chapman in the 9th.  With these roles now set, the Yankees can focus on building up the back end of the 'pen behind these guys and Joe can start thinking about how he wants to manage that group to keep his 3 horses fresh.

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Report: Actual MLB Team "Has Had Interest" In Ivan Nova

Deep in the underbelly of his latest weekend MLB column, Nick Cafardo did something that I honestly didn't expect to see done this offseason.  He provided some real, actual, reported evidence that another MLB team is interested in trading for Ivan Nova.  The Yankees have had Nova on the market for a while now, although I think it would be a stretch to say they're actually "shopping" him.  Team-friendly arb deal or not, there's not much about Nova's recent track record that would inspire teams to want to trade something away for him.  And yet Cafardo managed to tie the Marlins to Nova, saying "Miami has had interest." Whether that interest still exists now in the present or only in the past is unknown, and either way there isn't a great match to be made between the Yanks and Marlins.  Miami doesn't have any non-Jose Fernandez young starting pitching of value and there's no way they're trading Marcell Ozuna back to the Yankees for Nova.  Cafardo's report did go as far as referencing additional past interest in Nova and said the Yankees could decide what to do with him within the next month.

I still stand by my assertion that the Yankees are better off keeping Nova than trading him.  This report, while better than nothing, is not exactly a major stoke to the Nova trade fires.  There simply isn't much interest in him, not enough to match the value that Nova could have to the Yankees as additional rotation depth and a potentially useful piece in a retooled bullpen.  There's also the lack of activity on the Yankees' part in adding more rotation depth, depth which would hardly be better than Nova if it comes in the form of a cheap 1-year deal or a MiL offer with an invite to spring camp.  I don't blame the Yankees for trying to move him, but at this point keeping Nova for 2016 seems like the smarter move.

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Quick Hit: When Does Baseball Start Again?

With the calendar flipping over from December 2015 to January 2016 and the football regular season wrapping up, I think it's safe to say we've crossed the threshold from "excited about hot stove season" to "suffering from hot stove cabin fever" in the baseball world.  Good thing too, because with 46 days until pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, we're closer to the start of the 2016 season than we are to the start of the 2015 offseason.  That's a good thing.  Means it won't be long now before we can step out of the hot stove haze and into some fresher baseball air. But in the meantime, can somebody go check on my boy John Harper?  Maybe fluff his pillows a little bit, get him some more juice, and take his temperature?  He's taking the hot stove fever thing a little too far with his latest trade proposal:

"If only the Mets and Yankees would be willing to take the chance.

Because wouldn’t trading [Andrew] Miller and Brett Gardner for Zack Wheeler, Rafael Montero, and Alejandro De Aza fill important needs for both teams?"

John, buddy, come back to us.  In what universe is that a trade that works for the Yankees?  With what we've seen closers go for on the trade market this offseason, both the high and low ends of the return spectrum, what makes you think Cash would entertain the idea of trading his 2 best Major League chips for injured guys and a garbage outfielder?  That's like something a delusional Met fan would call into Francesa trying to sell to Mike as a great deal.  It's ludicrous.  It's not going to happen and it never should.

On a more serious note, I think we've reached the point of the offseason where keeping Gardner and Miller is more likely than either of them being traded.  Even if they're put into a package that brings back a solid-or-better starting pitcher, I don't see how the Yankees are a better team this season with that pitcher and without whatever it took to get him and I don't think Cash sees how either.  The markets on both Gardner and Miller have quieted over the last few weeks, and while there's always the chance that it's because the Yankees are working something they've been keeping under wraps, I think it's more likely that Cash and the Yankees have disengaged after seeing what teams were willing to offer.

The Chapman trade reminded us once again that the Yankees always have more going on than they let on, and there's still a greater-than-zero chance that Gardner or Miller gets traded before February 18th.  But I don't see the Yankees moving them for a less-than-optimal return package and I certainly hope they wouldn't trade both for John Harper's proposed return package from the Mets because that would be less than less than optimal.

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Rounding out the Rotation

Last week, George King reported that the Yankees would look to add starting pitching depth through minor league deals. This has been a strategy for the team in recent years, and it worked out amazingly well with Bartolo Colon (2.1 bWAR in 164.1 IP) and Freddy Garcia (3.5 bWAR in 146.2 IP) in 2011. The Yankees have not had much success since then, albeit not for a lack of trying (Ramon Ortiz, Scott Baker, etc), but it makes sense that the trend would continue. After all, the worst case scenario is that the player opts out of his deal and costs the team a few thousand dollars along the way. Realistically speaking, the pitchers that are willing to take a minor league deal have some sort of glaring flaw, which is oftentimes of the injury or poor performance variety (or some combination of both). Expecting a repeat of Messrs Colon and Garcia would be optimistic at best - but that should not dissuade us from those pitchers that could potentially be had on such a deal. And with free agency progressing at a snail's pace, there are quite a few pitchers on the market that fit the bill, with at least a smidgen of upside. Without further ado:

Bronson Arroyo 2015 - Did Not Pitch

Arroyo missed the entirety of 2015 while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and would have been forgotten had it not been for his role in the infamous Touki Toussaint deal. Prior to his injury, he was a durable, consistently average-ish pitcher, tossing at least 178 IP for ten straight seasons. Arroyo will be 39 when the season begins, and he has not pitched since June 15, 2014 - but he never relied on overpowering stuff, and the baseline is fairly low.

Brandon Beachy 2015 - 8.0 IP, 10 H, 6 BB, 5 K, 7.88 ERA, 5.76 FIP

The small sample size numbers from last year are quite scary, yet 2015 was all about the journey for Beachy. Prior to this June, the 29-year-old had last thrown a professional pitching August of 2013, undergoing his second TJS in March of 2014. He was solid for the Braves in parts of four seasons (267.2 IP, 121 ERA+, 3.4 bWAR), and is still young enough that you can still dream on him a bit. He made it through waivers twice last season, as well.

Chad Billingsley 2015 - 37.0 IP, 53 H, 8 BB, 15 K, 5.84 ERA, 4.81 FIP

Way back in 2008, Billingsley was the ace of the Dodgers staff, and Clayton Kershaw was a 20-year-old rookie attempting to sort out some serious command/control issues. Times have changed a bit, as Billingsley slipped back into league-average territory, and Kershaw turned into the best pitcher since prime Pedro Martinez. Like, Arroyo, Billingsley missed a year and a half with an elbow related injury (though he had TJS and a subsequent surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon). Unlike Arroyo, he returned last season, and showed that his stuff was mostly intact.

Mat Latos 2015 - 116.1 IP, 120 H, 32 BB, 100 K, 4.95 ERA, 3.72 FIP

Latos is the unlikeliest pitcher in this group to be available for a minor league deal, due to his age (28) and recent success (113 ERA+ in 102.1 IP in 2014, 8.1 bWAR between 2012 and 2013). It is more likely that he will seek a one-year pillow contract to rebuild some value, as he attempts to put performance and make-up questions behind him. Stranger things have happened, though.

Cliff Lee 2015 - Did Not Pitch

The contract that Lee will eventually receive is a mystery to me. Lee was basically the same pitcher that he had been for the last half dozen years prior to his injury in 2014, and there were upwards of fifteen teams checking in on him less than a month ago. There's probably a team out there that will guarantee him a deal, making his appearance here a bit misleading, but some reports indicated that he wants to pitch for a contender...

Tim Lincecum 2015 - 76.1 IP, 75 H, 38 BB, 60 K, 4.13 ERA, 4.29 FIP

The market for Lincecum has yet to develop, as he is reportedly planning on holding a showcase of his talents once he is fully recovered from hip surgery. That being said, he has not been connected to any teams thus far, and is four full seasons removed from being the Freak that we all knew and loved - he'd have to show quite a bit to earn anything more than a minor league deal (barring a panic move by a team with money to burn and seats to fill).

Kyle Lohse 2015 - 152.1 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 108 K, 5.85 ERA, 5.12 FIP

Lohse is an example of a veteran pitcher that you hope has just a little bit left in the tank, given his horrendous all-around performance in 2015, which makes him an ideal target for a minor league deal. He was an above-average starter from 2011 through 2014, eating innings and limiting walks, and there was no noticeable drop in his stuff last season. He was hit very hard last season, which may be an indication that his once stellar command is now merely solid, but, again, the Yankees wouldn't be asking for much.

Alfredo Simon 2015 - 187.0 IP, 201 H, 68 BB, 117 K, 5.05 ERA, 4.77 ERA

Simon's two years as a full-time starting pitcher have been a tale of two halves. In 2014, he had a 2.70 ERA and 2.7 K/BB in the first half, and a 4.52 ERA and 1.9 K/BB in the second. In 2015, that breakdown was 4.53/2.3 and 5.65/1.2. The long time reliever clearly hits a wall around mid-season, and it remains to be seen whether that will ever change. An argument may well be made that his time as an effective starter is essentially limited to the first half of 2014 - but that doesn't mean that there's no potential for at least a bit more than what we saw last year.

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Do Not Trade Andrew Miller

[caption id="attachment_79693" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Miller vs TOR II Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] There have been rumors for weeks that the Yankees were having conversations with teams about Andrew Miller. A lump built in my throat. What!? Rumors fly around all the time so I did not take it all that seriously. And then there was this sentence from Buster Olney in his ESPN blog (behind a pay wall): "The Yankees got very deep into conversations about Andrew Miller with the Houston Astros, before Houston’s acquisition of Ken Giles." Very deep into conversation seems a bit beyond a rumor. My knee-jerk, unprofessional reaction is, "Please say it ain't so!"

There is some logic behind my emotional leap. While I have often echoed a former ESPN SweetSpot leader that relief pitchers are fungible, great relievers are not. The Astros, one of the most stat driven front offices around, made it clear this winter that good relief pitchers were the big area of need after bowing out of the playoffs last year. The Royals have basically followed a Yankee (and before that, Tony La Russa) strategy to make the game a six inning game and get lots of strikeouts in those last three innings.

The one-two punch of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances was as good as it gets last year in the late innings. Betances did prove that he can close games if needed. But Miller, in his first year as a closer, was stellar. The Yankees have already traded away Justin Wilson and Adam Warren. So the sixth inning, seventh inning guys are up in the air right now. Trade away Andrew Miller and then you have the eighth inning to worry about too.

Sure, you could get lucky with a home-grown guy or with a spring training invitee. If this is about money, Miller's $9m salary is not that big of a deal--or at least it shouldn't be. And yes, we've been hearing that 2016 is a transition year and you don't really need two great relief pitchers for that. I don't see a whole lot of separation in the AL East, so competing is not out of the question. If the Yankees fall hard, then the trade deadline can revisit the idea.

But if there is a chance to compete--and I believe there is--then having a strong bullpen is essential these days. And by a strong bullpen, I mean guys who can miss bats regularly.

Perhaps it can be stated that Betances deserves to be able to take the next step. I do not think the "closer" title is as important as it was even a couple of years ago. Plenty of non-closing relievers have been picking up nice paychecks lately. Darren O'Day is just one example this past week. Betances, to his credit, has not made such demands. But it goes even beyond this reasoning.

Many thought that Dellin Betances was the Yankees' MVP the last two seasons. It is scary to think of where the Yankees would have finished the past two seasons without him in his role. He wasn't the closer. Similarly, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have shown the value of relief pitchers not labeled as closers. A point can even be made that Davis, Herrera and Betances were more valuable than the closers. Let's look at that for a second.

In 2015, Dellin Betances pitched in 39 high leverage situations and 21 medium leverage situations. Miller (in fairness, he did miss some time) pitched in 30 high leverage situations and 15 medium leverage ones. There is a stat called RE24 which is runs saved in bases occupied situations. Betances had a RE24 of 24.7 and Miller was at 16. Betances had an 11.8 WPA score and Miller a 9.

There are two observations you can make about those numbers. First, Betances in his role was every bit (and perhaps more) important as the closer. Moving Betances to the closer position would greatly diminish the ability of the Yankees to fill his current role effectively. And his role saved a lot of forest fires.

I am not exalting Betances over Miller. Miller has earned his salary not from being a closer in the past, but by being the kind of before-ninth inning relief pitcher that Betances is. Miller's role was super important to the Red Sox and then the Orioles in what they accomplished the years Miller was with them.

What I am saying is that Miller and Betances together are a formidable duo that improves the Yankees' chances of winning significantly. And since I still believe the Yankees have just as good a shot in the AL East as their competition, keeping them intact is certainly my preference.

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Winter Meetings Day 3 Wrap-Up

The Yankees kept moving and shaking after the Castro deal on Tuesday, trading another piece of their Major League bullpen away yesterday to add some upper-level rotation depth.  Today is the final day of the meetings and the Rule 5 Draft is later, so maybe we'll see another move.  Here's a quick update on where we stand after yesterday. - The aforementioned trade was the Justin Wilson one.  The Yankees got right-handed starters Luis Cessa and Chad Green in return, and both figure to start next season in the Triple-A rotation.  Cessa sounds like the better prospect from what I've read, but neither is a stud.  Wilson figures to be replaced internally by someone from the Lindgren-Pazos-Webb triumvirate.  Just kidding, it's going to be Lindgren.

- Via Jon Heyman, Brett Gardner is "still out there" in trade talks, although nothing is close for now.  I think Gardner stays.

- Via Joel Sherman, the Yanks are still shopping Andrew Miller around to the D'backs and Astros.  Houston traded for Ken Giles yesterday and it doesn't sound like anything is going to happen with AZ, so Miller probably stays now too.  I can't see Cash trading him and Wilson.

- Oh and in case you were wondering, Cash confirmed that the Yankees are still poor as $h*t and crippled by their payroll restrictions with this winner of a quote to Pete Caldera: 'It's accurate to say flexibility is limited currently because we're committed to a lot.''

- Via Bryan Hoch, the Yankees expect to lose somebody in the Rule 5 Draft and are also considering taking someone.  Jake Cave is the popular name I've seen suggested as the player they'll lose.

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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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Report: Nothing Close On The Gardner, Miller, Or Nova Trade Fronts

Yesterday George King posted a short article on the Jordan Zimmerman contract and what it meant for the Yankees' search for starting pitching on the free agent market.  If he would have waited a little longer, he could have included David Price in the piece and expanded on his idea, but that's neither here nor there.  While King's argument that the high price for Zimmerman (and now Price) could push the second and third-tier pitching markets out of the Yankees' desired price range is completely spot on, it wasn't the most important part of the article.  The most important part was the end, when King provided an update on the Brett Gardner, Andrew Miller, and Ivan Nova trade situations. That update is that there is nothing going on worth updating.  According to King, the Yankees haven't been impressed by any of the trade offers that have been made for Gardner or Miller and are not close to trading either of them.  King added that there has been little interest on the market for Nova, who is reportedly being shopped around.  For the time being, unless they've really kept something under wraps, it doesn't appear as though there is another major trade in the works for the Yanks.

And none of that is surprising.  Gardner and Miller are very good to great players at their positions who are still in their primes and on pretty reasonable contracts.  Teams would need to put a really good package of players/prospects together to get the Yankees interested and the Yankees have every right to ask for top names in return.  In the same way that they are unlikely to give up Luis Severino to get Shelby Miller, other teams have probably been unwilling to include their blue chippers in their proposals.  No big deal, just both sides doing what's best for their own interests.

Nova's case as a young-ish, cheap, future free agent to be with a 4.33/4.29 career ERA/FIP split, 50.1% career GB rate, and something to prove would be more appealing on the trade market if he wasn't coming off a major injury and 2 pretty bad partial seasons around that.  I said it the other day, Nova isn't going to bring anything of value back on his own.  He's a throw-in piece to a bigger trade at best, and at that market value the Yankees might be better off keeping him.

We'll see what develops heading into next week's Winter Meetings, but right now the stove ain't that hot in the Yankee kitchen.  It's probably safe to touch.

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