SSTN Mailbag: The Audit, Soto, And Ohtani!
by Andy Singer
November 3, 2023
As I mentioned last week, I've spent the last 5 days in Italy for my day job. Though working abroad can be stressful for a variety of reasons, I look forward to the opportunity to travel and see and learn about new places. Italy isn't new to me by any stretch of the imagination, but that familiarity actually allows me to really appreciate even small changes and experiences, particularly since my free time is often very limited. I've written in the past that I've noticed an uptick in the presence of baseball in Europe over the last 8 or so years, and this trip has largely continued that trend. I have also written that whenever I see MLB apparel on someone local to the area, it's a Yankee hat or shirt.
This trip began in much the same fashion. On a 3 hour train ride, an Italian mother and her roughly 10-year old son were seated in my area. The boy was very proud to display his Yankee jacket to an American who would know what the Yankees represented. That was the start of my week. A day later, driving through the hills of the countryside on the west side of the country, I was shocked to find a decently maintained public baseball field appeared out of nowhere within walking distance of the nearest town. Again, all of this is in keeping with the trend I've noticed in recent years in Europe. Then, something funny happened: baseball kept coming up throughout the week in a way I've never seen in Italy. In neighborhoods that do not attract tourists, I saw more MLB apparel. One or two Yankee hats appeared, yes, but so did other teams' apparel. I saw a Dodgers hat; a St. Louis Cardinals hat and shirt; and even a Chicago White Sox hat. Again, these were sightings in places that American tourists do not typically appear. I was floored.
I was fascinated to see baseball make such an appearance in unsuspecting places in Italy, and what I saw speaks to something our Editor-In-Chief, Paul, has expressed numerous times over the past couple of years. For years, if people outside of the United States knew anything about baseball, they knew one team: the Yankees. The Yankees were synonymous with winning, tradition, and the American way. I am probably overreacting, but I think finding non-Yankee gear in non-tourist areas of Italy is a real paradigm shift. The Yankees, through their organizational practices and lack of championships in the last decade-plus, are beginning to lose their singularity and prestige in world culture. Paul has been saying this for years, and while I have largely agreed, I thought the shift was happening more slowly. This is a small bit of evidence that the Yankees' descent to ordinary is real, and Paul is right that it is happening more quickly than I'd like to admit.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll discuss the latest details on the Yankees' internal "audit," revisit Juan Soto's trade value, and use our crystal ball to predict some of Shohei Ohtani's future! Let's get at it:
Mark asks: Any comments on the company the Yankees hired to perform the audit? Zelus sounds like a company that has experience in baseball front offices. Is this the right direction?
I am going to continue to put "audit" in quotes. As far as I'm concerned, this is not an organizational audit. Zelus Analytics is looking at a very specific piece of the puzzle for the Yankees' front office. Most specifically, they are evaluating how the Yankees are using the internal data they are generating; how they weight one data set versus another; and how the Yankees utilize that data to make both macro and micro decisions, from roster building to in-game situations. Frankly, it's a worthwhile exercise, though most of us would prefer a much wider scope so that the Yankees can operate more effectively day-to-day.
However, I'd like to be somewhat positive for a moment. EJ Fagan said something on the Bronx Beat Podcast a couple of months back with which I wholeheartedly agree. To paraphrase: the Yankees' use of data to make decisions and aid player development isn't the problem; the problem is that they aren't terribly good at utilizing and weighting that data. I'd take it a step further by saying that the Yankees additionally are not good at effectively filtering that data in ways that are positively meaningful for each individual player (some guys like a lot more data; some guys need to let their heads get clear). Zelus Analytics appears to be the exact type of company with the clout to make that determination and have the Yankees believe it. For reference, teams like the Rays and Braves have utilized Zelus' services in past years.
Too often lately, the fanbase has pinned "analytics" as a general force within baseball that is either adhered to or ignored. Like moth things in life, it's nowhere near that black and white. Every. Single. Team. in baseball is using and analyzing large datasets to aid in decision-making. Datasets include advanced statistics, but data can also include qualitative data like scouting reports, biomechanical assessments, and a host of other points of interest. I think the Yankees have lost their balance in utilizing all of the data available to them, and their statistical assessments are too one dimensional. I want to hope that Zelus Analytics can help the Yankees rediscover that balance.
All we can do is wait and see what happens.
Alan B. asks: With what is now being openly reported by both CBS Sports & The Athletic, about the Padres finances, how does that possibly change what the Padres can really insist upon in a trade for Soto? Doesn't that put a club like the Yankees with a deep pool of both pitching & outfield prospect depth, even if you take off the top 2 of each position in a better to acquire him, or, a team like Milwaukee with the same type of prospects to take a one year shot at a Championship?
I factored in the widely known reality that the Padres are in something of a financial bind when I generated my Juan Soto trade proposal in the Tuesday Discussion a couple of weeks back. Soto is a generational talent offensively, who is also very clearly flawed in every other facet of the game. The flip side to that is that even flawed, he is an incredibly valuable bat who is likely to be very valuable for the next 10 years, and he's also about to be expensive. The Padres only have one year of team control remaining over Soto, which also limits his trade value. Soto's inability to play good defense or run the bases well limits his upside to something in the 5-7 WAR range per season, which is excellent, but shy of the Aaron Judge/Shohei Ohtani/Mookie Betts spectrum.
I used the Betts trade as a proxy, if only because that deal was criminally light, but it had similar factors attached, which limited Betts' trade value on the open market. I agree that in a vacuum, the Yankees are well positioned for a Soto trade based on the variety of fringe top-100 prospects they can offer both on the pitching and outfield side of the coin. I really don't think that Volpe fits their needs, and I don't think a prospect of Dominguez's caliber will be required in this instance, given the lack of leverage the Padres have.
I'm going to stick with my original trade proposal: SP Clarke Schmidt, OF Everson Pereira, SS/3B Trey Sweeney, and OF Spencer Jones to the Padres for OF Juan Soto. That's lighter than the trade package the Padres traded away to get Soto, which makes sense given the lack of team control and public financial issues this time around. It's also a stronger package than what the Red Sox got for Betts, and it fulfills multiple needs for the Padres. They get a controllable starter, two outfield prospects in the back half of Top-100 Prospects lists, and a guy who I think will wind up being a utility-type infielder that can replace Jake Cronenworth when they eventually get out of that contract.
Fuster asks: what does the crystal ball reveal about Ohtani's future as a pitcher?
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, won't you tell me who is the greatest free agent of them all? I kid, but Ohtani is a genuine unicorn, so I'm not sure. The history of guys who have had two Tommy John Surgeries is really, really bad. Basically the best stories we have are Nathan Eovaldi, Daniel Hudson (who returned as a reliever), Chris Capuano...and I've run out of names off the top of my head. For this reason, Ohtani's agent has been incredibly cryptic about what elbow procedure was performed on his star client's right arm. We don't know if he had a primary repair/internal brace, TJS, or TJS+ to repair the damage.
Ohtani is freakish enough in his ability that I wouldn't discount his ability to return to pitching at a high level, but I can't in good conscience expect it. Ohtani is one of the best hitters in the sport, so he'll have value regardless of what happens with his right arm, but this is going to be a seriously tricky recovery.
If he comes back and throws 100 innings excellent innings per year for 4 or 5 years after his return, that should be considered a huge success. I wouldn't say I expect that performance, but that's the 85th percentile outcome, as far as I'm concerned. For every Nathan Eovaldi, there are untold numbers of Josh Johnsons and Jarrod Parkers.
I think he'll have some future as a great pitcher, but with heavily limited innings and durability issues.