Category: Yankees

Yankees lock up underrated Aaron Hicks with a 7-year extension

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Aaron Hicks is probably better than you think.

Ten days after extending ace Luis Severino, the New York Yankees made sure another valuable young star won’t reach free agency for several years. Aaron Hicks, 29, has signed a 7-year, $70 million contract with a club option for an eighth, meaning the Bombers have Hicks through his age-35 season.

Hicks has become one of the league’s more underrated players, overshadowed by his home run bashing outfield brethren (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) and the popular young infielders on the team. Make no mistake, other than Judge, Stanton and maybe a rejuvenated Gary Sanchez, no Yankees position player is as valuable on the field today as Hicks. His 4.9 fWAR finished just behind his fellow Aaron last season, not including pitchers.

The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins does everything you want from a centerfielder. He handles his position without issue, gets on-base at an above-average clip (.372 in ’17, .366 in ’18), hits for power (27 homers in ’18) and makes good choices on the basepaths. The issue with Hicks isn’t the grades but the attendance; his career high in games played was last season’s 137. Given the price (more on that later) it’s a risk worth taking for the Yankees.

Here are your 2018 OBP leaders for outfielders with at least 550 plate appearances:

Outfielder OBP
Mike Trout .460
Mookie Betts .438
Christian Yelich .402
J.D. Martinez .402
Lorenzo Cain .395
Bryce Harper .393
Shin-Soo Choo .377
Andrew McCutchen .368
Tommy Pham .367
Aaron Hicks .366

From that same crop of outfielders, here is the full list of batters with a better walk rate in 2018:

Outfielder BB %
Mike Trout 20.1%
Bryce Harper 18.7%

I’ll spare you yet another table, but again from that crop of outfielders established above, only McCutchen and Betts did a better job of not swinging outside the zone than Hicks last season.

Consider too that underlying metrics suggest his power uptick in 2018 could be for real. From 2017 to 2018, he put barrel to ball more often (7.5% became 8.8%), saw his exit velocity increase nearly 4 mph (85.7 to 88.9) and his launch angle tick up nearly two degrees (10.6 to 12.5).

In laymen’s terms? He hit the ball a lot harder last year. That’s a good thing.

So what are the risks?

Well, the injury issue for one. Fortunately, Hicks hasn’t been plagued by the same injury over and over; it’s been a hamstring here, an oblique there, etc. It all adds up, though, and if you told me Hicks never plays more than, say, 120 games in any season during this contract I wouldn’t exactly be shocked. 0

The contract length also is a smidge uncomfortable. Hicks is 29 and the Yankees are paying for a healthy chunk of his mid-30s. Sure, there are the usual concerns about decline, but the average annual value of the contract is so absurdly low ($10 million is a smooth bargain for the Yankees) that it hardly matters. It’s less than half of what Jacoby Ellsbury’s Milk Carton makes right now. Seriously.

Bottom line: if Hicks falls below replacement level in year four or whatever, the salary won’t prevent the Yankees from making a move.

From the player’s perspective, given how free agency has played out and with the ever-present threat of labor turmoil on the horizon, Hicks took security over potential. Can’t say I blame him. It keeps him on a winning team with guaranteed checks coming.



Yankees extend Luis Severino, signing him through 2023 season

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Luis Severino has 40 million more reasons to shout.

The New York Yankees announced today they avoided arbitration with pitcher Luis Severino, agreeing to a 4-year, $40 million contract extension. A club option for a fifth year could keep the young hurler in pinstripes through the 2023 season.

Severino has been one of the best pitchers in the American League the last two seasons, ranking third in Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, fifth in innings pitched, fifth in xFIP and sixth in strikeout percentage. He’s also the hardest throwing starter in the entire sport, averaging 97.6 on his fastball. Bottom line: he’s young (he turns 25 in a few days), durable and dominant.

There’s a lot to like here. Severino gets the security of guaranteed money coming in and the Yankees get an ace in his peak seasons for decidedly less than ace money. Patrick Corbin, who’s close to as good as Severino, just signed a 6-year, $140 million deal before his age-29 season that carries him into his mid-thirties. Barring disaster, Severino just signed away that age-29 season.

Given how stingy teams have become, that could prove a costly decision for him once his free agency dawns. But, pitchers get hurt. They get hurt a lot. No matter what happens, Luis Severino has $40 million coming to him. He’s worth much more, but that kind of money changes lives.

The question for the Yankees might be just how good Severino can be. Last season was the tale of two halves:

Half xFIP K% BB% HR/FB
First 3.13 28.7% 6.4% 9.3%
Second 3.06 27.3% 5.3% 15.3%

Looks similar, right? The home run rate spiked in the second half, but the strikeouts and walks aren’t much different and the xFIP even dropped. Well, the ERAs were, um, not so similar: 2.31 vs 5.57.

What gives? Some of it could just be bad luck on balls in play; his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) jumped about one hundred points from .278 to .378. Typically that kind of jump is fluky — it’s baseball, stuff happens.

But can we find anything further under the hood? Severino was hit harder in the second half — less soft contact, more hard-hit contact. Further, if we examine his spin rate numbers for the year, it’s mostly consistent aside from some weirdness with his slider, again in the second half:

Severino Spin Rate

I’m not qualified to say whether that means a whole lot, but could it mean a mechanical problem or an injury?

There was an awful lot of smoke about tipping pitches, and frankly, the evidence is pretty compelling. Pitchers with stuff like Severino shouldn’t get beaten like a drum, but make no mistake, Game 3 of the ALDS was a butt kicking.

Severino’s friend and mentor Pedro Martinez said on the air he had been pitching through an injury. Severino denied it. I suppose only the Yankees and their ace know for sure, but he didn’t go on the injured list.

He was probably tipping his pitches, perhaps in response to an injury or something else. I don’t know for sure. Regardless, he’s one of the best pitchers in the sport and the Yankees just locked up what should be the best years of his career for far, far below market value. If Severino stays even close to how good he’s been so far, it’s a big win for the Bombers.

Yankees appear content with Tulowitzki until Didi can return

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Didi Gregorius is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The New York Yankees are headed into Spring Training apparently content with their options at shortstop, be it Troy Tulowitzki or another in-house option until Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery. Manny Machado still hasn’t signed anywhere, but the Yankees hardly appear the favorite at this point.

So, Tulowitzki. I’ll spare you the “boy, this would be great in 2014” jokes, but man there’s not much here. Take a look at the last three years for the former Rockies All-Star:

Season Games wRC+ WAR
2016 131 104 3.0
2017 66 79 0.1
2018 0 0 0

Uh, great! If Machado wasn’t a serious pursuit, I don’t understand why the Yankees didn’t just re-sign Adeiny Hechavarria (or someone similar) to man shortstop until Gregorious is back. No, Hechavarria can’t hit at all, but he’s a slick defender and unlike Tulowitzki, not made of glass.

It’s not Tulowitzki’s fault he’s had such terrible problems with his heel, but the reality remains. The Yankees spent almost nothing to add him and if he breaks, he breaks; they release him and move on. But then you’re right back to square one but with fewer options.

Maybe I’m overrating Hechavarria, but at least you know he’ll be healthy and can handle short. The odds are Tulowitzki doesn’t make it through Spring Training without an injury, and even if he does, what are the odds he’s actually better than Hechavarria? I’m not optimistic. I think assuming Tulowitzki is a Major League shortstop in 2019 is probably absurd.

The other option, beyond the obvious, is to slide second baseman Gleyber Torres over to short. Torres came up through the minors as a shortstop and it’s within the realm of possibility he ends up there again. I don’t get the sense that’s an appealing option for the Yankees, though. This would be a better question for someone like Keith Law or Eric Longenhagen, but perhaps moving Torres off second temporarily would impede his development there? I don’t know.

If the Yankees insist on not adding Machado, they’re accepting below-par performance somewhere in the infield until Gregorious is healthy. I’m uncomfortable with that risk given the talent level across the Yankees’ roster; it’s time to push for a World Series, boys. But the brain trust in the Bronx believes this team can claim the elusive 28th championship, with or without Machado (or Bryce Harper).

Given how competitive the AL East is expected to be, a few wins left on the table because of weakness at shortstop could be the difference between a division title and the wild card and consequently a harder road to the Fall Classic.

None of this matters once the incumbent is back, and thus far Gregorius is doing well in his rehab, according to the New York Daily News. Sir Didi is already taking groundballs at shortstop and participating in light throwing drills, a big step in the recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“It felt pretty good,” Gregorius told the Daily News after a recent workout. “Pretty good.”

Gregorius, a vital part of this new Yankees core and a fan favorite, will turn 29 in a few weeks. He can become a free agent after this season, a curious time for him. If the year goes well, he’s probably still in line for a lengthy contract, but given the current market, who knows?

Does a Jacoby Ellsbury for Johnny Cueto swap make sense?

Jacoby Ellsbury’s tenure in pinstripes has been marred by injuries and ineffectiveness.

Brief thoughts on the trade idea floated today by ESPN’s Buster Olney:

In theory this makes sense. The Yankees have little use for OF Jacoby Ellsbury or his car-crash of a contract (two years, $42M). The Giants probably aren’t thrilled about SP Johnny Cueto and his contract (three years, $68M).

Ellsbury missed all of 2018 with an assortment of “injuries” best construed as “look, we’re good now and can’t afford to let you give away outs anymore.” He hasn’t cracked 2 fWAR since 2014. Cueto struggled through 53 innings (4.52 xFIP) before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. It’s unlikely he’d be available at all in 2019. Unlike Ellsbury, he was pretty good as recently as 2016.

Again, if we dabble in theory, maybe a swap makes sense. The Giants have serious need of warm bodies in the outfield, and hey, Ellsbury can definitely (maybe) throw on a cap and grab a glove and trot out there. He probably can’t be productive after so many injuries and so much decline, but he’s available.

And for the Yankees, well, everyone needs pitching, right?. The thing is, Cueto’s north of 30, injury prone and already on the decline before blowing out his arm. Perhaps once healthy he could slide into CC Sabathia’s rotation spot, but even that might be up in the air. His HR/FB rate climbed in 2017 to 14% and stayed there in 2018 — above the league average. The velocity and strikeouts have been on the decline, too. That doesn’t play well in Yankee Stadium.

If the Giants were willing to do something to balance out the salary difference, this isn’t necessarily an awful idea. But let’s be real here, it’s unlikely either player is a significant part of a contender going forward. Odds are Ellsbury is essentially replacement level and Cueto’s declining years would look a lot prettier in a more forgiving division and ballpark than the Yankees can offer.

Perhaps both teams are better off just swallowing hard and stomaching their respective bad contracts.

One final season for CC Sabathia

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CC Sabathia announced late in 2018 that this upcoming season would be his last.

In the last twenty years, arguably no free agent signing meant more to the New York Yankees than CC Sabathia. Signed in the winter of 2008 to a 7-year, $161M contract, Sabathia immediately became the ace the Bombers sorely needed. In a four year span, the big lefty was a workhorse:

Season IP xFIP WAR
2009 230 3.77 5.9
2010 237.2 3.63 5.1
2011 237.1 3.02 6.4
2012 200 3.20 4.7

That’s money well spent. The thing with aces — and Sabathia was the unquestioned ace of the Bombers — is we expect certain things for them. We want a lot of innings at an above-average clip. We want the reliability. There’s almost a John Wayne quality to an ace, right? They ride into town and settle down all the kerfuffle. An ace toes the rubber in a tense situation and quiets the opponent.

Sabathia had those moments in pinstripes. In Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS against a feisty Baltimore Orioles team, as that era of Yankees’ teams was petering out, the big man grabbed the game by the throat and never let go:

Complete game, nine strikeouts, two walks and four hits. Yankees win.

In many ways, that night in October of 2012 was the last time CC Sabathia was CC Sabathia. In 2013, the strikeouts fell, the walks climbed and his ERA nearly touched five. In 2014, knee trouble kept him to just 46 MLB innings.

Sabathia’s 2015 ended up being a turning point for his career. I don’t particularly care about how well he did or did not pitch, and neither should you. What matters is how the season ended; Sabathia checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility. It was a brave thing to do. The team supported it, the fans supported it.

Given that he’s healthy now, it isn’t much of a surprise that Sabathia has developed into a strong back of the rotation starter. His career has arced nicely. No, he doesn’t go deep into games and he certainly lacks the velocity he once carried, but Sabathia is clever and developed a nifty cutter. He generates a healthy amount of weak contact (as a result of that cutter) and doesn’t work himself into trouble. He successfully transformed himself after losing ticks off his fastball. Not everyone can pull it off.

Sabathia’s posted sub-4 ERAs each of the past three seasons and can be safely relied on to deliver in big moments. No, you can’t ride him for 8 innings and 130 pitches like you might, say, Justin Verlander, but he can get you a clean 5 or 6 innings. Considering the heavy artillery sitting out in the Yankees’ bullpen, that’s more than fine.

Sabathia announced in November that 2019 will be his last season. One last rodeo for the Big Man. There will be time in the years to come to discuss his Hall of Fame candidacy (I think it’s pretty darn strong at first glance), but without question, he was a great pitcher in the biggest moments.

As teams discuss the merit of spending high dollar on premier free agents, Sabathia should be one of the first names mentioned as an example of it working out.



Clint Frazier is healthy and fans should rejoice

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Clint Frazier was a top prospect on quality of hair alone. NEWSDAY

As a prized prospect of the New York Yankees, one would assume Clint Frazier’s frightening battle with concussions last season made national news. And yet, I bet most of you didn’t know about this:

Clint Frazier said it was like being in “a state of euphoria,” though that barely describes what really happened to the Yankees outfielder last summer. A chronic concussion, which lingered for months, not only robbed Frazier of a year of his career but left him with black holes in his memory — entire swaths of 2018 he can’t recall.

“I felt like I wasn’t physically there, like something I couldn’t get out of. I was scared,” he said by telephone on Tuesday. “There were times I’d be driving, like I was on auto-pilot or something. I’d look around and think, ‘How did I get here?’ ”

Whoa. Concussions are typically viewed as an MMA, boxing, football or soccer problem, but the reality is sadly different. What happened to Frazier could happen to any outfielder — he crashed headfirst into the outfield wall attempting a diving catch during a Spring Training game. Unfortunately, it was labeled as a “mild concussion,” a terrible thing to say in any situation because all brain trauma is serious. This isn’t like a calf strain. In a sense, that phrase tainted Frazier’s 2018. He played in only 69 games last season across MLB, AAA and A+ ball.

Going into 2019, Frazier, 24, is optimistic about his health. Just look at what he tweeted after being cleared:

Isn’t that awesome?

In baseball terms, Clint Frazier is an outfielder and was a prized prospect. But it feels almost cruel to think of him only in those terms now. He’s a living, breathing human being full of hopes and fears, just like you and me. His story has really reminded me of that, especially in lieu of Yankee fans asking what Frazier might provide for the team in 2019. I’m going to gently get into that, but that’s not the story.

It’s simple. Clint Frazier is healthy, and that’s freaking awesome.

But, baseball rolls on. Given that the Bombers appear unlikely to sign Bryce Harper to man left field, Brett Gardner seems pegged for the role going into the season. Once an above-average regular, Gardner’s lost bat speed as all mid-30s hitters tend to do and is now really a fourth outfielder/pinch runner. He’s not a viable option for a World Series contender.

The obvious question is, what can Frazier provide?

The answer is no one knows. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. But the Yankees have clearly held Frazier in high-regard — GM Brian Cashman famously called Frazier’s bat speed “legendary” — and across baseball, he was routinely listed as a Top-50 prospect. There’s pedigree here.

But he’s also yet to have an extended look at the big league level. Aaron Judge’s injury last year presented an opportunity, but Frazier was injured, forcing Cashman to acquire Andrew McCutchen. Given Gardner’s age and the possibility of ineffectiveness, Frazier could see another window open this year.

As a prospect, Frazier profiled as (roughly) an above-average hitter, but a risky one. He’s dependent on carrying a high batting average to keep his on-base percentages high and to supplement an okay walk rate. Then again, his bat speed is ridiculous and might boost him into 20+ home runs. He’s got a future.

But for 2019, who knows what to expect? He could be a really valuable piece. He might not hit at all. Who is to say? I don’t know what the Yankees or Frazier expect out of the coming season. But, if the young outfielder can just stay healthy and get a year of regular playing time (either in New York or Scranton), it’d be a cause for celebration.