By Andy Singer
The Winter Meetings have come and gone with very little activity from Major League teams, as expected. There were a few reclamation signings and an extremely lopsided trade that amounted to a money dump (expect more of that in the coming months), but none of the major names on the market officially signed. It’s going to be very hard to predict what the Yankees’ offseason will look like until we start to see some numbers on the top Free Agents, so hopefully we see some movement before the end of December.
In this week’s mailbag, we’ll talk about a trade rumor, the Rule 5 Draft, and predict the first big move for the Yankees this offseason. As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming each week. Email your mailbag questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, and I’ll answer a few each week. Let’s get at it:
Brian asks: Would you buy a rumor that the Yankees have been talking to the Pirates about Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell?
MLB Trade Rumors broke this news Wednesday night just prior to recording an episode of the Bronx Beat Podcast with E.J. Fagan, so I gave my very immediate thoughts there, but I’ll flesh those thoughts out more logically here.
In short, yes, I buy the rumor in the sense that it’s perfectly plausible that the Yankees have spoken to the Pirates about Taillon and Bell. Both players are in their late 20s, getting more expensive, and more suited to serving as complimentary pieces on a winning ballclub than they are on a team set for another rebuild. Make no mistake: the Pirates will look to get rid of anyone who isn’t nailed to the floor this offseason in an effort to get much cheaper and build for a future winner 2-5 years from now. It’s only logical for the Yankees to check-in on players that the Pirates will almost certainly look to move. Whether either player makes sense for the Yankees is another conversation entirely.
Let’s start with Josh Bell. Bell is a former top prospect who, after a few years of decent production at the plate, exploded in the first half of 2019 with more power than he had ever previously shown, but slumped through the 2nd half of that season before cratering in 2020. There’s a lot to unpack with Bell, so let’s start with the good stuff:
Despite a really poor season in 2020, Bell still hit the ball really hard, placing in the 87th percentile in MLB in Exit Velocity (91.7 MPH) and Hard Hit % (42.9%). These numbers are also in keeping with the contact numbers Bell produced in 2018 and 2019, so he has a history of hitting the ball hard.
Bell is a switch hitter and would add balance to a Yankee lineup that has become increasingly right-hand dominant. More to the point, Bell does most of his damage batting from the left side against right handed pitching, posting a triple-slash line of .271/.360/.485 for his career in those situations.
Bell has 3 years of team control remaining, so he will be both cheap and young for the duration of time a team has control of his baseball rights.
Bell has been really bad for basically 1.5 years at the plate. In addition to a +78 wRC+ in 2020, Bell hit just .232/.342/.476 from June 1st to the end of the regular season in 2019. While he still drew walks and hit for power, Bell did basically nothing else. To add insult to injury, even Bell’s walk rate and strikeout rates declined markedly in 2020. 2020 was an odd year for a lot of players, but we can’t ignore that Bell has regressed for a prolonged period of time now, despite the the hard contact numbers.
Bell is a first baseman only, and he isn’t really any good at it. He has been worth a whopping -32 Defensive Runs Saved at 1B since 2016, and other metrics agree that Bell is really bad defensively, and that’s even before we downgrade that defensive performance further for positional adjustment (to understand that concept further, I wrote about it last month here at SSTN). And just in case you hear anyone talking about Bell’s past as an outfielder to talk about his versatility: no, just no. Bell hasn’t played RF since 2016, and he was even worse there than he was at 1B: -5 DRS in just over 100 innings, which translates to -43.7 UZR/150. Basically, Yankee fans would pine for Miguel Andujar’s defensive “prowess” watching Bell play the field. Bell has no flexibility, is a 1B/DH only, and doesn’t come close to approaching Voit’s value at the position.
Bell put the ball on the ground a lot in 2020 in addition to his plate discipline regression, so I have a hunch there is something going on with his mechanics that has led to his decline. The Yankees have enough work to do with multiple hitters this offseason (see: Gary Sanchez), so I’m not sure they want to be in a position where they’re depending on a player like Bell to adjust.
Could Bell play the Mike Ford role off the bench, or as an injury replacement at 1B or DH? Sure, but I’m not sure that the acquisition cost is going to suit such a role. I’d pass on Bell.
Taillon is an interesting and heartbreaking case. Taillon was as good a prospect as Gerrit Cole, and the two were supposed to anchor the Pirates rotation for years. It didn’t work out that way. Taillon was first derailed by Tommy John Surgery, and later by testicular cancer. Taillon recovered from and persevered through both setbacks, and has been solid when he’s been healthy. In parts of 4 seasons since 2016, Taillon has been worth 8.8 bWAR, including 4.9 bWAR in 191 innings pitched in 2018. However, Taillon was hurt early in the 2019 season, ultimately requiring a 2nd Tommy John procedure. The history on pitchers who have required a 2nd TJS is…not good, though Taillon has forced his way back through so many challenges, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against him. Taillon’s pitch quality and stuff was nearly elite when we last saw him pitch: 77th percentile fastball velocity, 62nd percentile fastball spin, and 82nd percentile curve spin. I would argue that Taillon even has some upside compared to what we last saw: Taillon still threw a sinker 19-22% of the time from 2018-2019 (typical for Pirates pitchers, who are taught to lean on the 2-seam fastball), which could have suppressed his strikeout numbers. Gerrit Cole made a similar adjustment when he arrived in Houston from Pittsburgh, and his career took off when he adjusted his repertoire to suit his stuff. If Taillon comes back from TJS with stuff that approaches what we saw in 2018-2019, then I’d be all-in on betting that the Yankees could help him lean on his 4-seamer, slider, curve, and change-up to maximize his talent. Taillon likely won’t be super cheap, given that he still has 3 years of team control remaining, but I think the Yankees should be willing to take a risk on a pitcher with that kind of talent.
To make a long story short, I’d definitely be interested in Taillon, but I’m a hard pass on Bell.
Al asks: The Rule 5 Draft saw multiple Yankee minor leaguers drafted. Anyone we’ll miss?
The results of both the Major League and Minor League phases of the Rule 5 Draft went as expected for the Yankees – in fact, I’ll toot my own horn a bit, because almost all of the prominent players drafted were guys I mentioned in a mailbag 2 weeks ago. In the Major League phase, the Yankees lost:
Kyle Holder, IF
Garrett Whitlock, RHP
Trevor Stephan, RHP
In the Minor League Phase, the Yankees lost:
Matthew Wivinis, RHP
Kaleb Ort, RHP
Gustavo Campero, C
Ben Ruta, OF
Of the players drafted, only Whitlock, Holder, Stephan, and Ort have any chance of reaching the big leagues. Holder was an ill-fated 1st round choice by the Yankees, though his defense is reportedly good enough to stick in the Majors as a utility player on the back of a roster despite a history of empty contact that likely will not play at the big league level. The A’s picked Holder, and as a defensively skilled reserve, it’s possible that Holder sticks as a Rule 5 pick.
Whitlock will not overpower anyone, but he controls and commands the ball well with multiple pitches. He really has fringe stuff, but the Red Sox’s pitching staff is so bad, I could see Whitlock soaking up mop-up innings for them in 2021.
Stephan just hasn’t performed as a starter in the minors, but if his stuff were to tick up out of the bullpen, he’s another one who could be hidden in a bullpen for a year, though I still believe he has enough stuff to eventually make a career as an up-and-down reliever.
Ort is the rare player who makes the conversion from reliever to starter in the minors. That progression was slow, but Ort’s stuff is good enough that he may eventually make the big leagues in someone’s bullpen. I don’t think we’ll see him in the Majors this year, but again, the Red Sox’s bullpen is so bad, if Ort shoots through the minors in 2021, I could see it.
Relative to the prospects the Yankees still have in the system, the Yankees won’t be hurting after these losses, and I still think there’s a good shot at least a couple of these guys are returned by the end of Spring Training.
Mike asks: What’s going to be the first shoe to drop? If you had to predict, what are the Yankees going to do first in free agency or will we see a trade first?
I’m not going to be terribly original here: I think that the Yankees’ offseason strategy depends on what happens with DJ LeMahieu. If the Yanks retain DJLM, I think they’ll proceed to shore up the rest of the roster while maintaining a similar core to 2020. If DJLM leaves, all bets are off, and the Yankees will pursue a variety of avenues that will make the Yankees look very different in 2021. DJ LeMahieu’s fate is the catalyst to the rest of the Yankees’ offseason.