Several years ago, when I was still living and working in Scranton, I had brief clubhouse conversation about the construction of a Triple-A roster. I wasn’t really working on story, I was just asking questions and getting some answers, and the bit of information that stuck with me was the amount of money one particular minor league free agent was making that season.
He had very little big league time, but he had a great defensive reputation at a position where the Yankees were relatively thin. As I heard it, the Yankees were paying him well over $100,000 to hang out in the minor leagues just in case they needed him. Doesn’t seem like much money compared the contracts we’re usually talking about around here, but in a Triple-A clubhouse, a six-figure contract made him a pretty rich man (and he would, in fact, become a useful big leaguer).
I was reminded of that when I read this excellent piece by Kiley McDaniel over at FanGraphs. McDaniel looks at an under-the-radar way the Yankees have put their financial muscle to use. They’ve paid big money — in minor league terms, anyway — to sign some of the market’s top minor league free agents. That’s one way to make up for a lack of upper-level organizational talent.
I was told last offseason that 3B Yangervis Solarte was a target for multiple teams in the minor league free agent market. Both executives, analysts and scouts from different types of organizations had pinpointed Solarte as being one of the top tier minor league free agents at this point last year. There wasn’t a huge bidding war for him alone, but multiple teams were calling his agent with offers on the first day of free agency. This also happened with a couple dozen other players deemed to be top tier free agents.
Logic follows that in this sort of situation, Solarte would sign with one of the teams that spends up to $20,000 per month ($100,000 for the a full season in the minors). The Yankees ended up signing him last offseason for $120,000 ($24,000 per month) with a split contract (meaning he’d make more than the MLB minimum if he is in the big leagues: $515,000 in this case instead of the $500,000 minimum), a Spring Training invite, provisions to leave for an Asian professional club during the year if he chooses and a guaranteed $66,000 salary ($13,200 per month) for the season even if he’s cut during Spring Training and he plays the whole season for another organization (or stays at home).
As we now know, Solarte went on to make the Opening Day roster, have a breakout first half, and become a central part of the Yankees mid-season trade for Chase Headley. That’s a relatively small investment paying off in a big way. Other players brought in as minor league free agents who played at least some role this season included Zelous Wheeler, Matt Daley, Scott Sizemore, Rich Hill and Antoan Richardson. Guys like Chris Leroux, Bruce Billings and Jim Miller cycled through just to eat innings and give the Yankees a fresh arm when they needed one. The Yankees also landed Chris Young on a minor league deal and got a big month of September out of him.
These aren’t star players by any means, but they’re helpful, and the Yankees have the financial freedom to give the extra $20,000 or so to bring in the best from that roughly replacement-level market. McDaniel goes into great detail, with terrific examples, showing the ways in which the Yankees have supplemented their minor league system by targeting and paying for specific minor league free agents in recent years. We’ve seen other recent examples of the Yankees spending on things other than big league payroll. They dumped a ton of money into the international market this summer (bought a bunch of lottery tickets, as one official explained it) and they added an extra rookie-level affiliate just to give more players at-bats and innings (makes it easier to get all of those lottery tickets some playing time).
It might be a small part of the big picture, but it also seems that baseball teams are constantly searching for any marginal advantage, and signing the top minor league free agents is one way to have a slight advantage. Ideally, the Yankees will do less of it going forward — best-case scenario, the system begins to fill those roles from within — but for now, it’s an unheralded part of their spending, and they’ve found some helpful pieces along the way. Giving too much to a major-league free agent can be crippling. Giving too much to minor-league free agent barely even creates a ripple.
Associated Press photos
A few thoughts heading into the weekend • 08.22.14
The big picture is pretty obvious heading into this weekend. The Yankees are four games out of the second wild card and about to play three games against a pretty bad White Sox team (granted, with Chris Sale pitching one of those games). They’re not in a great spot, but they are remarkably not buried just yet. They have to hit better, they have to get on a roll, and they have to take advantage of situations like this weekend if they want to make any sort of playoff run. All of that goes without saying at this point. So here are a few random thoughts heading into the weekend.
• Easy to say this after yesterday’s strong start, but of all the guys the Yankees traded for his season, Brandon McCarthy stands out as the best option for a new contract. Martin Prado is going to stick around anyway, and while there’s an argument to be made for both Chase Headley (who I think might be more expensive than expected) and Stephen Drew (who doesn’t strike me as the best shortstop on the market this winter), McCarthy seems like a great fit. He gets groundballs in a stadium where fly balls are dangerous, he throws strikes, and he has a personality that fits this market and this clubhouse. Kind of walks that line between being goofy and still having a leadership quality. And this year has proven beyond a doubt that there really is no such thing as too much starting pitching.
• Speaking of McCarthy, there are some similarities between him and tonight’s Yankees starter, Shane Greene. And yesterday, McCarthy had some awfully nice things to say about Greene. “I like watching Shane pitch. I don’t care if I’m not here anymore (next year), he’s a really fun kid for me to watch pitch because he lies and calls it a cutter even though it’s s disgusting, unhittable slider. His fastball is just explosive. He’s a guy I’d never heard of before a came here, and 10 years ago that’s a kid that’s on the cover of Baseball America, and he’s the next big thing. It’s crazy where pitching has gone, but I think it shows how good he is that, nobody really knows who he is, probably, and I guarantee you when hitters go back to the dugout they’re (saying), ‘I don’t know what I just saw.’”
• On Wednesday night, Joe Girardi said that Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Derek Jeter — the top three hitters in the lineup — have been probably the team’s most consistent hitters. While I think most people are on board with Gardner and Ellsbury being two of the bright spots this season, I wanted to look up Jeter’s numbers. He hit .272 in April, .275 in May, .272 in June, and .289 in July. His on-base percentage — except for a down much of June — and slugging percentage have also been fairly steady from month to month (though all of his numbers are down in August). Jeter has not been a great hitter this season, but I really believe that if the offense were more productive around him, we’d all be talking about what a nice, steady, still-productive final seasons he’s having. Instead, with the offense struggling so much, Jeter occasionally becomes a go-to argument as if he’s the source of the problem.
• Carlos Beltran seems confident that playing catch and playing the outfield have nothing to do with his recent elbow setback. But that’s been a risky situation ever since the bone spur was discovered, and I can’t help wondering if throwing a baseball a little bit might have played some small role in expediting a setback that was probably inevitable anyway. He’ll have surgery regardless, but now he’s had three cortisone shots in a year. That just seems like a lot. If doctors cleared it, I’m sure it’s fine, but he’s really doing what he can to stay on the field.
• On the flip side of the Beltran-in-the-field argument: I was never sure it was a good idea, and I’m still not sure it was a good idea, but I became significantly more on board when Girardi made it clear he was willing to give Derek Jeter significant time at designated hitter so that either Drew or Brendan Ryan could spend more time at shortstop. Freeing up the DH spot not only let the Yankees rest veterans more easily, but it helped their infield defense on those days Girardi was willing to play his best defensive shortstops. That seemed like a real plus. It might have been an obvious move, but I wasn’t sure Girardi would be willing to do it.
• I assume yesterday’s Zelous Wheeler call-up makes him a shoo-in for a September call-up (meaning he’ll stick around once rosters expand). Nothing against Wheeler, who’s done a nice job establishing himself as a kind of utility option in the big leagues, but I really wondered if his roster spot might be up for grabs next month. There’s little sense keeping both he and Jose Pirela on the roster — they’re fairly similar — and I thought the Yankees might prefer to check out the younger guy. I guess it still might happen. With Wheeler and Yangervis Solarte, the Yankees did a nice job over the winter of finding some useful pieces among the six-year minor league free agents. Need to do that kind of thing when the upper levels of the minor league system are fairly thin.
• Take away any requirement for number of at-bats, and the only Yankees who have hit better than .300 with runners in scoring position this year are Scott Sizemore (2-for-4), Zoilo Almonte (1-for-3) and John Ryan Murphy (4-for-13). The other Yankees hitting better than .250 with runners in scoring position are Brett Gardner (.295), Stephen Drew (.294), Jacoby Ellsbury (.292), Yangervis Solarte (.284), Kelly Johnson (.280) and Derek Jeter (.275).
• Not the usual sort of item for a post like this, but it sounds interesting: Yesterday, MLB announced that Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Yasiel Puig and Albert Pujols will be among a group of Major Leaguers who will travel to Japan this November to play a five-game series against “Samurai Japan” (Japan’s National Team) in “All-Star Series 2014.” Ron Washington will manage the team. No word on a full roster just yet. I think it would be cool to see Brett Gardner, Dave Robertson or Dellin Betances make the trip. Maybe even a guy like Shane Greene or David Phelps if MLB is going to flesh out the roster with younger guys like that. Certainly not the biggest names on the Yankees roster, but absolutely among the most deserving of something like this.
• One reason the Yankees are still in the race is because of the general parity in baseball. I really wonder if we’ll see another run where a team makes the playoffs as consistently as the Yankees did the previous two decades. “I think that with the way that baseball has (gone) with the revenue sharing and the TV contracts and everything that’s going on, I think you’re seeing more parity in the game,” Girardi said. “It doesn’t appear that there’s going to be a team that wins 100 games this year. I don’t know how many teams are going to win 90 games this year. You’re seeing, I think, a group of 30 teams that from top to bottom, I think there’s more competition and it becomes really difficult. We can look at Boston last year, they won the World Series. They made a few changes, but they didn’t make a ton of changes, and this year for whatever reason it hasn’t worked out for them. And I don’t think they expected that. It’s not easy to win a championship.”
Associated Press photos
Just an observation: Joe Girardi no longer seems upset or disappointed when he hears questions about whether the Yankees offense is ever going to get any better this season. Girardi still strongly backs his team, shows nothing but confidence in them, but it’s as if every answer comes with an unspoken line: “But I can understand why you’re asking.”
Most of today’s pregame press conference was all about whether the Yankees really are good enough to make a playoff run in these final five weeks or so.
Does Girardi ever think that his team just might not be good enough?
“No, I don’t, because I know how hard it is to play this game,” he said. “Obviously we’re judged on the results. I look at the effort. And I know the results are very important because, if the effort is not there, there is no chance of having results. The effort is there everyday. I talked about it yesterday. We (had) seven or eight guys hitting early trying to figure this out and get going, so I will be optimistic as long as they continue to prepare correctly and they work hard.”
To which Michael Kay made this point: If they’re prepared, and they’re focused, and they’re approaching everything the right way, is there a chance they just aren’t good enough?
“I don’t believe that,” Girardi said.
So what do you do?
“You keep running guys out there and believe it’s going to change,” Girardi said. “Eventually it’s going to be right and it’s going to be consistent over a long period.”
At this point, the Yankees are far enough behind teams that they’re going to need some help along the way. They can’t simply sweep three games against Detroit next week and climb into the wild card lead. It’s not a comfortable position, but the Yankees — Girardi included — seem well aware that they put themselves in this spot.
“It becomes a concern when you get down to the last three, four weeks of the season,” Girardi said. “But it’s a concern now. But my bigger concern is us, not the other teams. Because if we don’t win, it doesn’t matter what the other teams do in front of us. My focus is still our club, and if we play really good baseball down the stretch, we have a shot.”
• Zelous Wheeler is up and Chase Whitley has been optioned to Triple-A. Without Carlos Beltran for a few days, the Yankees were going to be down to a two-man bench, so they added Whitley who can play some infield and outfield. The Yankees also face a left-handed pitcher today, and lefties on Friday and Sunday. So a right-handed bat is a solid fit. “With Carlos being an uncertainty for a day or two, we felt that we could use the extra bat,” Girardi said.
• The Yankees had been carrying eight relievers since the trade deadline, so this basically puts their roster back to the typical alignment. Whitley will likely go down until September, and then return when rosters expand. I don’t think he’ll even burn an option. Pretty sure a player has to stay down for 20 days to burn one.
• Beltran said yesterday that he hopes to play on Friday. Girardi made that sound like a real long shot. “I think you’ll start to have a pretty good idea by Saturday where we’re headed with this, if we can get him back fairly quickly,” Girardi said.
• Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to face hitters on Saturday. Should be a live batting practice session (or perhaps a sim game, which is more or less the same thing). “Our plan is that it will probably be here, but we’ve got figure out who to face,” Girardi said.
• The plan for David Phelps? “Until he starts throwing bullpens, I’m not ready to put a timetable out,” Girardi said. “Obviously we felt we could get him back much quicker (making him a reliever). You don’t need to build him up nearly as much. Right now I believe he’s going to play catch again today. I’ve got to talk to Stevie to see when the first time he has him off a mound and then you’ll have a better idea.”
Associated Press photos
Looking ahead to September • 08.18.14
This post contains way too many words about possible September call-ups.
Why is this way too many? Because aside from the possibility of a left-handed reliever, there really don’t seem to be any impact September call-ups on the horizon. A few guys will come up to provide pitching and bench depth, but that’s about it. There isn’t a ton of playing time up for grabs, and there aren’t many obvious auditions that could take place. A left-handed reliever might get into some key situations, but that’s about it. If the Yankees fall completely out of contention, I suppose they could give a guy like Bryan Mitchell a start or maybe give Zoilo Almonte a chance to make a fresh impression with some right field starts. Ultimately, though, I wouldn’t expect a ton out of the September additions.
But, I like minor league baseball and I think September call-ups are interesting, so here are a few thoughts and possibilities broken into four pretty typical September call-up categories.
Pretty standard September addition. The Yankees have been playing with an eight-man pitching staff for quite a while now, but even so, they’re still likely to add a few guys just to give them depth down the stretch.
Best bet: RHP Bryan Mitchell
He’s been up and down a few times, and he’s been pitching well out of the Triple-A rotation. He’s pretty much custom-made for providing innings, and there’s a real benefit to giving him some more big league experience. Seems like a strong candidate to be a rotation candidate at some point next season, even if he opens the year in Triple-A.
Keep in mind: RHP David Phelps
Worth remembering that Phelps is currently on the disabled list but due to be reevaluated today. Phelps was pitching pretty well before that mess of a start in Boston, and he could certainly move right back into the rotation once he’s healthy again. That could essentially push Chris Capuano into a bullpen role as another long man.
Uncertainty: RHP Preston Claiborne and RHP Matt Daley
Both are on the 40-man roster, but both are also on the Triple-A disabled list. If they’re healthy, it would be easy to call up both Claiborne and Daley to be extra middle-inning or extra-inning arms. Claiborne seems pretty close to coming off the disabled list. Another injured Triple-A reliever, Jose Ramirez, won’t be healthy in time to come up next month.
Worth mentioning: RHP Brandon Pinder, RHP Diego Moreno, RHP Mark Montgomery, RHP Danny Burawa
Montgomery and Burawa have been demoted to Double-A, which probably isn’t a good sign for them getting a call-up to the big leagues. Worth mentioning, though, because all four have been pretty good at times this season, and all four should be Rule 5 eligible this winter. If any of these pitchers are going to be protected in the offseason, might make sense to go ahead and add them to the roster now. My guess would be that Pinder is at the top of this particular pecking order right now. Veteran RHP Jim Miller could also be part of this discussion if the Yankees want a short-term roster addition just to provide some innings.
Probably not: RHP Nick Rumbelow
He’s moved quickly through the system and has been alright since getting to Triple-A, but he’s not Rule 5 eligible yet and there’s probably no reason to have him filling a 40-man spot all winter just so he can get a mopup inning or two in September.
The Yankees might very well bring up a new lefty before September 1, but given the fact they’re not carrying a true left-on-left specialist, it seems like a solid bet that they’ll eventually give some young lefty a call-up. Might even try more than one.
Best bet: LHP Manny Banuelos
Can’t say for certain that Banuelos is the “best bet” to come up as a left-on-left reliever, but he’s the only option who’s currently on the 40-man roster. He’s also pitched pretty well lately, which is surely easing some of the concerns about his early season inconsistency. Whether a career starter — and a young one at that — would be a viable situational lefty, I have no idea. But having a spot on the 40-man makes him an easy call-up if the Yankees want to either get his feet wet or see what he can do in a fairly important role.
Keep in mind: LHP Jacob Lindgren
The Yankees first-round draft pick back in June was a college reliever who throws pretty hard from the left side, and the Yankees have already pushed him all the way to Double-A. Pitching in Trenton isn’t exactly knocking on the door, but Lindgren has a big arm and a bunch of strikeouts and it’s not unheard of for a team to push a college reliever all the way to the big leagues in his first pro season.
Uncertainty: LHP Chris Capuano
He won’t be a September call-up, but Capuano factors into this discussion because of David Phelps. If Phelps is ready to return to the rotation fairly quickly, he could takeover for Capuano, who could move into a left-on-left role out of the bullpen. A possibility if the Yankees aren’t sure any of the young guys can handle the job.
Worth mentioning: LHP Tyler Webb, LHP James Pazos, LHP Francisco Rondon, SHP Pat Venditte
My guess is that all of these except Webb should be considered real long shots. I mention Pazos because he has good numbers in Double-A and the Yankees seem to like his arm; Rondon because he was once on the 40-man and has had the Yankees attention at various points; and Venditte because he’s been a pretty solid reliever for years now and has generally been pretty good with that side-arm delivery against lefties. Webb, though, is the left-handed relief prospect who’s most on the radar. Doesn’t have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft yet, but the Yankees have been pretty aggressive with him and he’s probably their most advanced left-handed relief prospect.
Probably not: LHP Nik Turley
There are actually a ton of lefties on the Triple-A pitching staff right now, including Turley, Matt Tracy and Jeremy Bleich, all of whom would be capable of giving multiple innings and — in theory — matching up against a left-handed hitter. My thinking, though, is: If the Yankees are going to try a long-time starter in this role in September, why not just try Banuelos? That’s easier than putting some of the other non-traditional relievers onto the roster. Know who else is a probably not? Cesar Cabral. The guy was actually in the big leagues at one point this year, but he’s fallen completely off the radar. Double-A lefties are knocking him around.
Happens basically every September that teams give themselves an extra catcher for the final month of the season. The question with the Yankees isn’t whether they’ll call up a third catcher, it’s whether they’ll call up a fourth catcher.
Best bet: C John Ryan Murphy
Even thought it was Austin Romine who came up when Brian McCann went on the disabled list, I’m still going to bet that Murphy is the best bet for a September call-up. I’m basing that almost entirely on the fact that Murphy played well during his extended big league call-up earlier this season, and based on the fact that Mark Newman has said Murphy is likely to come off the Triple-A disabled list pretty soon.
Keep in mind: C Austin Romine
These days, Murphy generates much more prospect buzz than Romine. But, down in Triple-A, it’s actually Romine who has better offensive numbers this season. He’s also played a decent amount of first base and could, in theory, fill in for Mark Teixeira in some late innings. Romine hasn’t played much in August, but he hit .342/.385/.466 in July, and it’s not like the big league staff is unfamiliar with him.
Uncertainty: Why not both?
Does it make sense to go ahead and bring both Murphy and Romine to the big leagues in September? Maybe leave one of them behind to play that last Triple-A game, and then just carry four catchers in the final month? In blowouts, one could get behind the plate and the other could rest Teixeira by playing first base.
Worth mentioning: C Francisco Cervelli
There’s only one other catcher call-up candidate worth mentioning, and we’ll get to him in a second. For now, it’s worth mentioning that the Yankees are facing an offseason decision about whether to bring back Cervelli — who’s been awfully good — or to give the backup catcher job fulltime to either Murphy or Romine. If the Yankees are out of it in September, one of these September call-up catchers could step into some serious playing time just to see what they’ve got.
Probably not: C Gary Sanchez
He’s on the 40-man roster, and he’s one of the biggest names in the Yankees minor league system, but it’s hard to predict a Sanchez call-up this year. He’s been alright this season, but he’s also been benched for disciplinary reasons, and it’s hard to imagine much playing time being available for him. Just doesn’t seem that he’s on the verge of getting his feet wet, but I guess you never know. If he’s sorted out his disciplinary issues, maybe he’s rewarded. My guess is that he won’t be.
VERSATILITY ON THE BENCH
There’s no one currently in the system who seems on the verge of a September call-up to play a significant role in the everyday lineup. Position players who come up are most likely going to be complimentary pieces given very occasional playing time.
Best bet: OF Zoilo Almonte
Joe Girardi hasn’t seemed sold on Almonte ever since his so-so performance last season, but he’s still a powerful left-handed hitter — technically switch hitter, but he’s significantly better from the left side — and he’s on the 40-man roster with some big league time already this season. Not sure he’ll actually get at-bats, but he seems like an obvious choice to bring up at least serve as an option for some pop as a pinch hitter or occasional platoon starter.
Keep in mind: UT Zelous Wheeler
In a lot of ways, Wheeler is an ideal September call-up. He’s already on the 40-man, he’s held his own in the big leagues already this season, and he can play almost any position on the field, which means he provides terrific versatility down the stretch. As long as Wheeler stays on the 40-man roster, there’s little reason not to give him a call-up.
Uncertainty: UT Jose Pirela
The one reason not to call up Wheeler would be to call up a somewhat similar but younger player in Pirela. Wheeler is probably the better defensive player, but they’re both versatile right-handed hitters who are putting up good numbers in Triple-A. If the Yankees aren’t planning to keep Wheeler through the offseason — but are interested in keeping Pirela — they could basically swap the two, putting Pirela on the roster in Wheeler’s place and giving Pirela the September call-up. Pirela can play second base and left field, and he could play third base, first base, right field and presumably shortstop in a pinch.
Worth mentioning: OF Ramon Flores, 1B Kyle Roller, OF Adonis Garcia, OF Taylor Dugas
Of these four, only Flores is on the 40-man, and he’s a nice fit for September. He can run, he can play all three outfield spots, he has some first base experience, and he was playing pretty well in Triple-A before an injury. Indications are that Flores could be off the DL and active by the time September rolls around, but would the Yankees call up a guy who’s hardly played since the start of June. The other three listed are not on the 40-man, and I’m not sure they’d play roles significant enough to find a way to get them on the roster. Dugas in particular has been terrific this year, but he’s not yet Rule 5 eligible, so there’s probably little sense having him take up a 40-man spot all winter. I would suggest OF Antoan Richardson as an interesting possibility as well — speed off the bench, ability to play all three outfield spots — but he’s currently on the temporarily inactive list, and I’m not sure what that’s about or how long he’ll be there. Could temporarily add him without worrying about a DFA this winter.
Probably not: 2B Rob Refsnyder
Arguably the most buzzworthy September call-up possibility. Probably is, Refsnyder is just like a handful of guys on this list in that he’s playing in Triple-A already but won’t be Rule 5 eligible this winter. If he’s only going to come up to sit the bench and maybe get his feet wet, is that really worth taking up an otherwise valuable 40-man spot all winter? If he were coming up to play every day, that would be one thing. But bringing him up to backup Stephen Drew probably isn’t worthwhile.
Associated Press photos