Happy New Year, everyone! It seems a little late to say it, but the sentiment is there, all the same. All of us were hoping for some end-of-year magic from the front office, but alas, none arrived. I am disappointed, but by the same token, the reality of the current market is that many of the big names appear to be slow-walking their free agency decisions. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell, and Jordan Montgomery, are the consensus three best free agents remaining, and all are represented by Scott Boras. Why is that significant? Boras clients have a history of waiting out the market until deep into the off-season, and sometimes even into Spring Training, before making a decision. Even when the market seems non-existent, Boras has a track record of getting his clients deals that many from the outside would think impossible. Love him or hate him, it's pretty easy to understand why so many MLB players choose to be represented by Scott Boras - he just gets results.
And that's something the Yankees need - results. I am not angered by the fact that the team didn't get Yamamoto, particularly as more details come out about the deal. However, that doesn't mean that the Yankees get to rest. There are still real holes in the roster, even if we assume bounce-backs and positive returns from injury. The rotation looks a lot better (possibly one of the best in baseball) if Rodon and Nestor turn the clock back to 2022, but they still need at least one starter, and possibly two. The early injury news on Scott Effross, who would be a huge addition to the bullpen, hasn't been glowing, so there are holes there until otherwise noted as well. The market is slow right now, but that doesn't mean that the team shouldn't be exploring other avenues for making things happen. Now that the team knows and understands the market, they can be more aggressive with offers in both the trade and free agent markets. Make it happen.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about my expectations for a couple of oft-injured starters, a couple of minor league catchers, and my thoughts about a couple of very recent acquisitions! Let's get at it:
Larry P. asks: So much of the offseason since the big trade with the Padres for Soto has centered around starting pitching. The big names are Monty and Snell, and the Yankees traded a lot of pitching depth over the last few years, so they are obvious targets. But I think we've forgotten about the guys we already have and there's a tendency to write them off. What do you personally think that Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon will do for the team in 2024 and will they be part of the solution or an anchor for the team this year?
Larry's question got to the heart of what I was thinking about as I wrote the opening to this week's SSTN Mailbag, and he's right. We really haven't done much talking about Rodon and Cortes Jr. this off-season, other than to note that they were injured and suffered through varying degrees of ineffectiveness. As I said above, even with the 2022 versions of these guys, I still want at least one more starter, because:
The Yankees need depth, as all teams do in the starting rotation.
I think Clarke Schmidt would be a far greater weapon as a multi-inning threat out of the bullpen than as a back-end starter.
The Yankees' championship window with the current roster extends only through this year; they need to give this roster every chance they can to succeed, and an abundance of riches in the starting rotation can help accomplish that goal.
That doesn't mean that I don't think that Rodon and Nasty Nestor are capable of being successful, it just means that the team needs insurance. Now, let's get to my thoughts on both.
I have been in favor of bringing Rodon to the Yankees since he was non-tendered (!) by the White Sox following the 2020 season. Rodon was abused by his college coaches at NC State, and has struggled with injuries ever since. When he's healthy, he is as good a pitcher as you can find around the league. He is one of the few guys out there that can get through an order multiple times with just two truly above-average pitches. He gets away with that because his fastball is generally plus, and his slider is one of the highest graded pitches in the league. When both are working together, Rodon can mow through any lineup, and he has a tenacity and edge on the mound that harkens back to a bygone era.
Unfortunately, that tenacity and edge can work against him when he's not going well, and I don't think his off-season and Spring Training program really ever got off the ground. While I'm sure he did some form of off-season throwing and training, it certainly wasn't guided by the team until later in the off-season, and I'm sure his free agency bid and the logistics of moving across the coast cost him some of his routine. As a result, he got hurt very early in March, and likely ramped up too quickly because the team needed him, which resulted in the back issues and for sure impacted his performance on the mound. Anecdotally, he looked like a guy that was overthrowing to get to his normal stuff, and his control and command backed up with all of his pitches. His fastball was also coming in on a rail as opposed to riding, so hitters sat on it when he missed, and could avoid the slider because he didn't throw it for strikes often enough.
All reports are that Rodon is healthy and having a normal off-season. I think that bodes well for getting his arm and body in both good shape and ready for a long season. In his last two mostly healthy seasons (2021-2022), Rodon pitched to a 2.67 ERA (155 ERA+) and a WHIP just under 1.00 while averaging 155ish innings per year. I don't think he'll match that performance again, but I think he is capable of again hitting 140-150 innings, and I expect the Yankees to give him extra rest as-needed so that he's healthy for the playoff run. It wouldn't shock me at all if Rodon pitches to a 3.25-3.50 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP, while bumping his strikeout numbers back to traditional norms. I think he'll struggle a bit more with homers in Yankee Stadium, but he'll be really close to the #2 the Yankees need.
Nestor Cortes is another guy who never really got off the ground. Nasty Nestor was forced to ramp up early for the WBC, hurt his hamstring, and then struggled with shoulder injuries. In the movie, Miracle, Herb Brooks is quoted as saying "The legs feed the wolf," and he might as well have been talking about pitchers. From the moment Nestor hurt his hamstring, I think his mechanics shifted, which put added strain on his shoulder. Again, I'm sure he felt the push to return as the Yankees were in desperate need of starters, and he likely rushed back. The good news is that Nestor has basically experienced a normal off-season, and we can even go through social media to see his end-of-season bullpen session and some of his normal off-season throwing.
In the bullpen I saw, his fastball looked like it was living in the high-80s with good stuff. It's pretty normal for guys to add 4-5 MPH from normal (note: not max effort) indoor bullpens to in-game situations, so I was pleased to see how free and easy his arm and delivery looked. With a normal off-season, I feel really good about Nestor Cortes Jr. I don't see any reason why he can't go back to being a guy who posts a 3.00 ERA with good peripherals, though I don't expect more than 150 innings out of him in the regular season.
Based on the above, you can see why I prefer Monty to Snell if I have to have one: the Yankees could use someone other than Cole who is capable of eating innings.
Mike asks: The Yankees have two legitimate catching prospects in the upper minors, Ramirez and Rice. Which do you prefer and do you see a future for either with the Yankees or are they trade bait?
I got to see Rice in-person right behind home plate at the end of the season, and I sadly missed Agustin Ramirez in the same look, though I've watched plenty of video. Below are my thoughts alone, based on having watched both play (not taking others' scouting reports into account):
The pop that Rice showed last season was for real. I saw him play during Somerset's last home game of the regular season, and he went 2-4 with a homer. The swing is long for my liking, with a lot of moving parts, though the swing is certainly simpler than it was when he entered the Yankees' system. The ball he hit out was a pitch he didn't get all of; Rice got under it a bit and it was a touch to the end of the bat based on the sound, but it still carried 400-410 feet. That's indicative of bat speed and strong hands. So, I think the raw power is there, and there's plenty of evidence he can get to it in games. As a hitter, I have very real questions about the hit tool, despite his video game numbers this year. Again, the swing isn't simple, and the bat plane will make it difficult for Rice to get better breaking balls in the upper levels. I also haven't seen how he handles premium velocity, as the Erie SeaWolves chucked some truly terrible pitching during my look. Power is Rice's carrying tool, and while I don't expect him to get to even an average hit tool, the power will play if he can get to his ceiling hit tool (I have it as a 40). At his best, I think he can be a .230ish hitter with plenty of power, but again, I'm not sold that the hit tool will get him there.
The real issue is that I don't think he's a catcher, at all. Most of you know how I feel about Austin Wells' defense; I have an even worse grade on Rice behind the plate. I watched him catch a quality prospect in Richard Fitts (now in the Red Sox system). Rice was not a great framer, with a stabbing motion at the ball on fastballs that were just outside of the expected range. He allowed multiple breaking balls and off-speed pitches by him, and he looked very slow moving laterally. He makes a good effort back there, but I don't think he's a catcher, as he's pretty maxed out physically.
Ramirez popped this year. He has some likelihood of getting to his above-average power with a slightly below-average hit tool, if it continues to progress. He's a below-average receiver right now with a decent arm, but with enough athleticism to continue his improvement. The bat was overmatched at AA, but I think he'll be fine with more reps.
As a catching prospect, I think Ramirez is the one to hope on, though I think Rice has a bigger carrying tool, though with greater variance in projected outcomes. I think Ramirez is a pretty high-confidence big leaguer, at least as a backup.
Brian asks: Can you tell me anything about the two guys the Yanks picked up today [Thursday] in Bubba Thompson and Cody Poteet?
Here are my quick thoughts: Thompson has raw power that his hit tool won't allow him to get to consistently, he's average-ish in the outfield, but he is one of the fastest players in baseball. If the Yanks can keep him on the back of the 40-man roster, you could see him as the designated pinch runner in the playoffs. Who knows, maybe there's an adjustment to be made at the plate to let him get to more power, but this guy has one interesting tool for a championship team.
Poteet basically replaces the Yankees upper minors pitching depth. He has options, is returning from Tommy John, but he does have interesting stuff. He's got a mid-90s fastball and a truly excellent change-up, a profile that the Yankees are good at working with. Maybe they can coax more out of him, and he becomes a viable 5th starter or swing man? At worst, he's nice, optionable shuttle depth.