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SSTN Mailbag: First Base Philosophy, Potential Free Agency Loophole, And Buck Showalter!

By Andy Singer



November and December flew by in a blink for me. I like being busy, but this is really the only time of year I get to take a deep breath and prepare for the year ahead. As someone who enjoys the holiday season, I am greatly looking forward to spending time at home, eating good food, and spending quality time with people I care about. For those of you that also celebrate one of the numerous holidays that take place during the month of December, I wish you a very happy, healthy, and safe holiday. Thank you all, as always, for reading and participating in both the SSTN Mailbag and the SSTN community more generally. Interacting with all of you is one of the best parts of my week, so I look forward to continuing that in the New Year.

In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll discuss first base strategy, a potential clever loophole in lockout roster restrictions, and Buck Showalter! Let’s get at it:

David asks: Would you prefer the Yankees to trade for a first baseman like Olsen, or would you rather the Yankees spend on a first baseman like Rizzo or Freeman if he’s actually available?

All of you know that I love Matt Olson, and I would certainly not be upset if the Yankees put together a trade to go get him. Olson is the complete package: emerging plus plate discipline, huge power from the left side, excellent defense, and (depending on what happens with the CBA) a couple of years of team control at a good price. Olson is a first baseman in his prime that really is a perfect fit for the Yankees.

This is really a philosophical question about how teams are built. Generally speaking, I believe in spending as few assets as possible to acquire a first baseman. Generally speaking, given the choice between spending prospect capital and money to build at first base, show me the money. I would rather use prospect capital to acquire pitching or an up-the-middle player. To clarify, when I speak of prospect capital, I’m talking about the impact prospects at the top of the system who can be used to acquire real impact players.

However, there are levels and layers to this question. If the choice is between spending money on Freddie Freeman vs. making a big trade for Olson, I say sign Freeman. I’m not sure that Freeman is really available, but he’s likely to be one of the best first basemen in all of baseball for at least the next couple of seasons, and at the end of the day, it’s not my money. I’d go all-in on Freeman if there was a real opportunity to sign him to a deal.

Rizzo is a significantly lesser player than either Freeman or Olson. He is firmly in the decline phase in his career and save for a big first week and a half in pinstripes, his offense is sorely lacking at a big-bat position. Given the choice between spending prospect capital on Olson and spending money in a long-term deal for Rizzo, I’d trade for Olson.

Yankeerudy asks: What’s to stop a team from signing, say, Carlos Correa to a $300m guaranteed minor league contract with a spring training invite in order to get around the lockout?

This was a fascinating question that was really difficult to research! In my mind, surely there are rules about players of that stature signing a minor league contract to subvert the lockout? I first went to The Official Professional Baseball Rules Book from Major League Baseball, 2021. I read almost the entirety of that document so that you don’t have to (you’re welcome). There are numerous descriptions of how a player can become a Free Agent, but very little that pertains to this scenario. MLB Rule 9(c) discusses Minor League free agency in-depth, but there is really no description of a scenario like Correa’s as proposed by Yankeerudy. Of note, Major League Baseball is required to provide team front offices a list of players who will be considered Minor League Free Agents by August 1st each year so that teams can prepare accordingly for players both in their systems and others. Initially, I didn’t think much of this clause…but I’ll come back to it in a minute.

Until last night, I was ready to note that there appears to be a major loophole in the current rules around minor league free agents, but a line in a story on MLB Trade Rumors got me thinking. In an article about the Yankees’ minor league signing of David Freitas, MLB Trade Rumors notes, “[…] Freitas was eligible to sign a minors pact by virtue of the fact that he ended the season as a minor league free agent.” I started thinking about the minor league free agent list noted in MLB Rule 9(c) again, and went back to the rulebook. In MLB Rule 9(c)(4), I think we have our answer. Players can petition MLB to become minor league free agents if they were not included on the list as of August 1st. I have a hunch that this is how many players who were on Major League 40-man rosters the previous year are able to sign minor league deals the next year (all transactions are somewhat more complicated and mired in minutia than the average fan realizes). In order to become a minor league free agent, Carlos Correa would almost certainly have to petition MLB, which given the current state of labor relations, would never be accepted.

I’m not 100% sure that I’m correct in my reasoning above, but I think that I’m at least on the right track. Frankly, even if there is a giant loophole in the current rules governing minor league versus Major League signings, I have a hard time believing that any owners would willingly cross the picket line in the midst of a major labor stand-off.

I loved researching the answer to this question, and it brings up an interesting thought, to my mind at least. It really astounds me just how much minutia we really don’t understand as outsiders to the inner game. Sure, many of us can understand player evaluation and team building, but contracts? Proper paperwork for free agent declarations? Petitions for proper Free Agent assignment? These are steps and processes that we really don’t have visibility over, so it makes questions like this shocking in their difficulty, because it seems like such something that should be a very simple answer on the surface.

Ryan asks: Did the Yankees make a mistake by not interviewing Buck Showalter prior to rehiring Aaron Boone?

I think the Yankees made a mistake by choosing to re-hire Aaron Boone so quickly this offseason. We have seen numerous manager candidates shake free this offseason, which makes the Yankees’ desire to hang on to Aaron Boone look somewhat short-sighted. I am on the record in numerous places for disliking Aaron Boone’s initial hiring, as well as hoping for a change in the manager’s seat this offseason. I think one of Bob Melvin or Joe Espada would have been very interesting people to interview for the manager’s role. I’ll even agree that Buck Showalter deserved to be interviewed. However, I do not agree that Buck Showalter should have been the choice for Yankee manager.

I will give Buck Showalter credit for the following: he is a baseball lifer who clearly has a wealth of knowledge about the game; he traditionally instills a sense of discipline and accountability on his teams; he has proven to be very good at taking bad, young teams and helping them turn the corner into competitive teams; and he very clearly loves the game of baseball. However, all of this glosses over what happened at his last stop in Baltimore.

Showalter has traditionally insisted upon having more control over organizational decisions than is typical for modern managers. I’m not just talking about modern in the most recent sense: even compared to managers 5-10 years ago, Buck Showalter requested significant control over player development in the minor leagues and roster decisions at the Major League level. At the very least, even if you don’t believe in separation of powers between the front office, player development, and MLB coaching, those aspects of an organization should be collaborative.

Showalter’s tenure in Baltimore, while it began successfully, was undone in spectacular fashion specifically due to his influence on player development. Baltimore was graced with a highly rated farm system that should have produced a Major League pitching staff that would be the envy of the league. Instead, Showalter played around with Gausman’s arsenal and insisted on forcing him to one side of the pitching rubber (which was uncomfortable for him); Dylan Bundy was over-pitched needlessly despite the fact that he had known issues in his shoulder; and player development staff under Showalter’s command shortened Hunter Harvey’s stride, diminishing his stuff and likely leading to career-altering arm injuries. Additionally, for all I hear about what a good tactician Showalter has been throughout his career, this is the same man who made any number of completely baffling in-game decisions at the end of his Baltimore tenure, including saving his best bullpen arm in reserve in a must-win game, and consistently doing things like walking the bases loaded for the force, despite the fact that statistics have shown time and again that this strategy doesn’t work in the long-run.

Maybe Showalter has grown since 2018, and maybe he was able to give satisfactory answers to all of the questions surrounding what happened at the end of his tenure in Baltimore. But if I’m the Yankees, that’s a lot of maybe I’m not willing to chance.

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