- Alex Rodriguez could still factor into the Marlins’ next ownership group if the faction including Tagg Romney, Tom Glavine and Dave Stewart lands the franchise. Given A-Rod’s controversial past, the Romney team is keeping him “at arm’s length” for now; even if they weren’t, Rodriguez isn’t allowed to be part of an ownership group as long as he’s still collecting a salary from the Yankees. The 41-year-old’s contract with the Bombers expires at season’s end. His former teammate Derek Jeter, who’s vying with Jeb Bush and against Romney & Co. to purchase the Marlins, isn’t planning to invest much money, says Heyman. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported Saturday that Bush and Jeter are leading the race to acquire the franchise.
- Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is making $557,900 this year, according to Heyman, who reported in March that the backstop had agreed to a salary worth more than the minimum of $535K.
If the first couple months of the major league season are any indication, two of baseball’s best hitters are emerging in New York. In the Bronx, there’s Yankees right fielder and American League Rookie of the Year front-runner Aaron Judge; in Queens, Mets outfielder Michael Conforto has rebounded from an underwhelming 2016 to fare even better than he did during his sensational rookie campaign in 2015.
Given that Judge looked lost during his first big league stint last season, his success this year has come as a bigger surprise than Conforto’s. The 6-foot-7, 275-pound behemoth did notch four home runs in only 95 plate appearances, but that came with an alarming strikeout rate (44.2 percent) and a horrid .179/.263/.345 batting line. To his credit, though, the 25-year-old Judge worked prior to the season on cutting down his strikeouts and making more contact, as FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik detailed earlier this month, and the results have been excellent. Everything is trending right for Judge – his strikeout rate is down to a manageable 29 percent; his contact rate has shot up exactly 10 points (from 60.2 percent to 70.2 percent); his walk rate has climbed from 9.8 percent to a terrific 14.2 percent; his out-of-strike zone swing rate has fallen from 33.6 percent to 25.5 percent; and his swinging-strike rate is at 12.4 percent after sitting at 18.1 percent last year.
All of Judge’s gains have helped lead to a .316/.421/.665 line in 183 PAs – not to mention a first-place start for the Yankees – and he currently ranks third in the majors in both wRC+ (192, trailing only Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman) and isolated power (.348, again behind only Trout and Freeman), and second in home runs (15, one behind Trout and tied for second with Bryce Harper). While an unsustainable .391 batting average on balls in play has propped up Judge’s numbers, his production still looks legitimate when factoring in the degree to which he has punished baseballs. Judge’s expected weighted on-base average, which uses exit velocity and launch angle to gauge a hitter’s performance, is sitting at .427 – not far below his actual wOBA of .450 – per Baseball Savant. As great as Judge has been offensively, he has also held his own with the glove, ranking fifth among outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved (seven, behind well-known defensive wizards Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Kevin Kiermaier and Byron Buxton) and a respectable 34th among 70 qualifiers in UZR/150 (2.7).
Conforto, meanwhile, hasn’t been on Judge’s level defensively (a combined minus-one DRS and minus-5.2 UZR/150 at all three outfield positions); however, as Judge has been this season, Conforto was outstanding with the glove during his rookie year (nine DRS, 26.5 UZR/150), so there’s reason for hope going forward. Regardless, the bulk of the 24-year-old Conforto’s value will always come from his bat, and the lefty-swinger has done his best to match the right-handed Judge and keep the woebegone Mets afloat this season. Conforto, after hitting a so-so .220/.310/.414 in 348 major league PAs last season and even earning a minor league demotion, is now sitting at .322/.416/.658 with 13 homers and a 13.3 percent walk rate (against a strikeout percentage of 24.9) in 173 trips to the plate this year. He ranks fifth in the majors in ISO (.336) and sixth in wRC+ (178), and while he’s also running a BABIP (.370) that won’t last, his .391 xwOBA (down from a .440 wOBA) is indicative of a superstar-caliber hitter.
While Judge and Conforto have torn apart major league pitching this year, the fact that the two are thriving isn’t completely shocking, as each cracked various top 100 lists as prospects. Now, both sluggers are more than living up to the hype they generated before their major league tenures began. With Judge and Conforto potentially in the midst of becoming franchise cornerstones, I’ll ask you the same question Joel Sherman of the New York Post presented to major league scouts and front office executives earlier this week: Who’s the better long-term piece?
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
9:30pm: Ellsbury has been placed on the 7-day DL, tweets MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. The team has yet to announce a corresponding roster move, however.
7:30pm: The Yankees announced that center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was removed from tonight’s game with a concussion and a neck sprain. Ellsbury made a sensational catch of a deep fly-ball to center field but crashed into wall upon making the grab and was down on the field for several seconds before being attended to by trainers (video link). That occurred on the first play of the game, and while Ellsbury initially remained in the contest, he was replaced by Aaron Hicks in the bottom of the second inning.
While the Yankees haven’t made an announcement of a DL trip, it seems that the diagnosis of a concussion would likely call for a trip to the 7-day disabled list. Ellsbury has played quite well thus far in 2017, hitting .281/.349/.422 with four homers and eight steals through the first 153 plate appearances of his age-33 campaign. If he is indeed sidelined, the Yanks have the outfield depth to get by, as Hicks has also been tremendous in what is shaping up to be a breakout campaign. Hicks or Brett Gardner could handle the bulk of the work in center, with the other playing left field and Aaron Judge manning right field.
In the event of a DL stint, Mason Williams seems like the most logical candidate to replace Ellsbury on the roster. The fleet-footed 25-year-old has hit poorly in Triple-A this season, but he’s already on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, whereas top prospect Clint Frazier would require a corresponding 40-man roster move. And, given the organization’s hope for Frazier in the long run, the Yankees may not want to bring Frazier up as a temporary injury replacement. Alternatively, the ability of both Hicks and Gardner to handle center field could make Rob Refsnyder a short-term option, as he’s begun to play some corner outfield in recent seasons as well.
- Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres debuted with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday night at third base writes Newsday’s Erik Boland. While the Yankees still expect to give Torres work at shortstop, third base and second base — as was the case in Double-A — he’ll see an uptick in playing time at third base in Triple-A, according to Boland. While Torres is a natural shortstop, the Yankees’ current infield need lies at third base due to Chase Headley’s recent slump. (Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro, on the other hand, are both hitting well.) Boland spoke to a talent evaluator from an opposing club that felt Torres is more than capable of handling the hot corner, even if he’s looked his best at his natural position of shortstop thus far in 2017. “Playing over there is more reactionary, he’s shown his first step toward the ball is good,” said the scout. “His feet are good after he makes the play. He doesn’t have that quick-twitch quickness that the elite third basemen have, but he does some things well that will get better.” Boland’s piece offers additional quotes as well as further details on Torres’ defensive scheduling with Scranton.
Recently, I took a quick look at all of the players with vesting options for the 2018 season, noting that many of the outcomes within will have significant ramifications for both the upcoming free-agent market and the future of those players’ respective teams. The implications are even greater for the eight players that have opt-out provisions of some type at the end of the current season. In some cases, the opt-out in question could either liberate that player’s team from more than $80MM in future commitments or saddle them with that same burdensome amount. (And, in most cases, if the player isn’t opting out, the remaining salary is indeed a burden, as the player either performed too poorly to opt out and/or got hurt.)
Here’s a look at the opt-out decisions that are looming at season’s end…
- Justin Upton, Tigers: The disastrous start to Upton’s six-year, $132.5MM contract now looks like a distant memory. After struggling to a .228/.286/.369 batting line through his first three months in the Motor City, Upton has surged with a .255/.342/.535 slash and 31 home runs over his past 471 big league plate appearances. Strikeouts are still an issue for Upton, but he’s also walking more than ever (15 percent in 2017). He’s on pace to finish the season right around the 30-homer mark, and if he can do so with an OBP in the mid-.300s and respectable marks in left field — he’s currently at +4 DRS and +3.4 UZR — then the remaining four years and $88.5MM on his contract will pose an interesting decision for Upton, who is currently playing out his age-29 season.
- Johnny Cueto, Giants: Cueto looked like an ace in his first year with San Francisco but has stumbled to a 4.50 ERA through his first 58 innings with the Giants in 2017. He’s still averaging better than eight punchouts per nine innings to go along with solid (but diminished) control. However, he’s seen his ground-ball rate plummet from 50 percent to 39 percent, and paired with the increase in walk rate (1.8 BB/9 to 2.5 BB/9), that has led to some issues. There’s still plenty of time for Cueto to get back on track, but the remaining four years and $84MM on his contract doesn’t look quite as easy to walk away from as it did just seven weeks ago. He’ll be 32 next season.
- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: Cueto’s slow start looks Cy Young-worthy when juxtaposed with Tanaka, who has logged a ghastly 6.56 ERA through 48 innings in 2017. Like Cueto, Tanaka has seen his control take a step back, though his strikeout and ground-ball rates are consistent, and his velocity is fine. Tanaka’s average on balls in play is up, however, and his homer-to-flyball rate has skyrocketed from 12 percent to 24.5 percent. Given his age (29 in November), Tanaka would be a virtual lock to opt out of the remaining three years and $67MM on his contract with a good season. If he can’t overcome his home-run woes, however, he may instead opt for the substantial amount of guaranteed cash remaining on his deal.
- Wei-Yin Chen, Marlins: Chen’s opt-out is perhaps the easiest to determine of any player on this list. Unfortunately for the Marlins, that’s due to the fact that he’s currently sidelined indefinitely due to arm troubles. Chen is on the disabled list with arm fatigue, though it’s been reported previously that he’d been pitching through a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, which was sustained in 2016. Chen hasn’t pitched well as a Marlin even when healthy, and at this point it would take a quick recovery and a dominant finish for him to even consider opting out of the remaining three years and $52MM on his contract.
- Ian Kennedy, Royals: Kennedy has logged a solid 3.74 ERA in 233 1/3 innings since signing a five-year deal with Kansas City, but he’s already in his age-32 season. His strikeout rate and control have taken a step back in 2017 as well, and he’s remained homer-prone despite pitching half his games at the spacious Kauffman Stadium. Kennedy turned in a very strong final four months in his last contract season — which helped him land this surprising contract in the first place — but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll opt out of the remaining three years and $49MM on his current contract.
- Greg Holland, Rockies: To be clear, Holland cannot technically opt out of his contract just yet. The one-year, $7MM contract that he signed with the Rox contained a $10MM mutual option that can vest as a $15MM player option if Holland finishes 30 games. At this juncture, though, it seems as if an injury is all that can stop Holland’s player option from vesting. He’s already finished 20 of the 30 games he needs, and he’s currently boasting a preposterous 0.96 ERA with a 26-to-6 K/BB ratio through 18 2/3 innings. Apparently, pitching at Coors Field suits Holland just fine, though if he keeps this up, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll turn down the one year and $15MM he’d receive for a second season at Coors and hit the market in search of a lucrative three- or four-year contract.
- Matt Wieters, Nationals: The stagnant offseason market for Wieters’ services culminated in a two-year, $21MM contract with the Nats that offers Wieters the opportunity to test free agency once again next winter, if he wishes. To this point, it’s looking likely that Wieters will pass on that player option. His walks, hard-hit rate and BABIP are up, none of which has come at the expense of his strikeout rate. Wieters is hitting a solid .283/.358/.442 with four homers on the year. His caught-stealing rate is down (23 percent), and his framing remains questionable, but the improved offense makes it seem likely that, even if Wieters again struggles to find the strong multi-year deal he craves, a contract comparable to the one year and $10.5MM he can opt out of will once again be available on the open market.
- Welington Castillo, Orioles: Castillo’s two-year, $13MM contract with the Orioles was a pleasant surprise for a player who had previously been locked into arbitration in Arizona before surprisingly being non-tendered. He’s off to a torrid .348/.375/.543 start to the season with four homers and six doubles through 96 plate appearances. There’s a fair bit of luck involved in that production, as evidenced by the 30-year-old’s .418 BABIP. But his strikeouts are down this season, and he’s thrown out a career-best 41 percent of attempted base thieves. His framing marks, while still below average, have improved on a per-pitch basis as well. His glove may prevent him from fully cashing in, but Castillo’s bat could make the remaining one year and $7MM on his contract easy enough to walk away from, assuming he’s healthy.
- The Yankees have promoted top prospect Gleyber Torres to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, as MLB.com’s Matt Kardos first tweeted. Torres hit well for Double-A Trenton, batting .277/.363/.504 over 135 plate appearances this season. The move suggests the 20-year-old could make his big-league debut in the not-too-distant future, meaning that the Yankees could perhaps continue to see relatively quick returns on the trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to Chicago for Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford. (Warren, of course, is currently in the midst of a strong season in the Yankees’ bullpen.) Torres ranks second on MLB.com’s list of the game’s top 100 prospects, topped only by another recently traded player, White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada.
- Aaron Hicks has been taking grounders at first base, though it may take an “emergency” scenario to see Hicks starting at the position, Yankees infield instructor Joe Espada tells NJ.com’s Brendan Kuty. Joe Girardi asked for Hicks to get some work at first for depth purposes, though work will be required since Hicks has never played any position besides outfield during his 10 pro seasons. Deploying an athletic and above-average outfielder at first could be seen as something of a waste defensively, though the Yankees clearly are exploring all possible ways to get Hicks’ bat into the lineup, with Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury also all hitting well in the regular outfield spots. Greg Bird and Chris Carter, by contrast, have provided the Yankees with little production at first base.
10:51am: Chapman underwent an MRI on Saturday that didn’t show any structural damage, per ESPN’s Marly Rivera. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman expects Chapman to miss about a month, reports Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News.
9:41am: The Yankees have placed closer Aroldis Chapman on the 10-day disabled list, retroactive to Saturday, with left shoulder rotator cuff inflammation, according to an announcement from the team. The club has recalled right-hander Chad Green from Triple-A to take Chapman’s roster spot.
While the severity of the flamethrowing Chapman’s injury isn’t known, it’s obviously troubling that he’s dealing with a shoulder issue just over a month into a five-year, $86MM contract. The ailment does perhaps explain Chapman’s recent struggles, though, as he surrendered a combined four earned runs on six hits and two walks in the two outings that preceded his placement on the DL. Those showings are almost solely to blame for Chapman’s relatively underwhelming ERA (3.55) and increased walk rate (4.26 per nine innings) in 12 1/3 frames his season. In his previous 12 appearances (11 1/3 innings), Chapman yielded just one earned run and walked four.
Although Chapman hasn’t quite been himself this year, further evidenced by the second-worst strikeout percentage (36.8, down from 40.5 last year) and second-lowest swinging-strike rate (14.6, compared to 18.6 in 2016) of his career, he’s nonetheless among New York’s most important players. Thanks in part to Chapman’s seven saves in eight chances, the Yankees enter Sunday with an AL East-leading 21-12 mark. They’ll now turn the ninth inning over to lights-out setup man Dellin Betances, who had difficulty as the Yankees’ closer down the stretch last season after they traded Chapman to the Cubs, while relying on the likes of Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and Jonathan Holder to bridge the gap to Betances. Those four have been outstanding this year for the Yankees, who own the majors’ fourth-best bullpen ERA (2.50).
- The Yankees’ three-game losing streak at the hands of the Reds and Astros raises a number of questions about the team, Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes. CC Sabathia has struggled lately, Chris Carter hasn’t hit well in place of the injured Greg Bird at first base, and the team is relying heavily on young players. Of course, as Sherman points out, it was never realistic to hope that the Yankees would sustain the blistering 21-9 pace at which they began the season.
- Do the Yankees have a better bullpen now than they did last year with Andrew Miller in the fold? George A. King III of the New York Post observes that with Adam Warren, Jonathan Holder and Tyler Clippard all pitching well, the Yankees have more depth in the pen to better bridge leads to Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. The only “weak link” is Tommy Layne, King writes, who has a 9.45 ERA through his first 10 appearances (6 2/3 IP) of the season. If Layne continues to struggle, I would think the Yankees would target left-handed relief help at the deadline, since Chasen Shreve is the only other situational lefty available.