SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Lefty Relief Targets, Jasson Dominguez, and Catcher!
It's a good time to be a Yankee fan. A little more than a month into the season, the Yankees are quite clearly one of the two best teams in baseball, and it isn't particularly close. Reasonable arguments can be made for both the Yankees and Dodgers for the best team in Major League Baseball, but both are in a class of their own. Though the offense has seemed stagnant at times, that just hasn't been the case relative to the rest of the league. The Yankee offense has produced 4.84 Runs/Game, good for 5th in the league, while their 122 OPS+ is second to the Angels by a whisper. The Yankees have also sported one of the best pitching staffs in the league, placing in 3rd in ERA and ERA+ and ranking in the top-5 of numerous other categories. Add in the fact that the team's defense is greatly improved as is the baserunning, and you have an all-around team that can win in a variety of ways. This is what I expected to see before the season started, but it's ben fun to watch regardless. Baseball has been fun for Yankee fans again, and I'm going to revel in it for as long as I can.
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 possible lefty relief pitching targets for next season, Jasson Dominguez, and the catching position! Let's get at it:
Fuster asks: OK, who is a realistic trade target as a lefty reliever to serve as Chapman's replacement?
It is true that after Aroldis Chapman and Lucas Luetge that the Yankees really don't have any proven left-handed relief pitching. Chapman is a free agent following the 2022 season, and based on contract and his steady slide in velocity and reliability, I don't expect the Yankees to re-sign Chapman unless his price is significantly lower than expected. Luetge has served a valuable bullpen role for the Yankees, but he is not anyone's idea of a high leverage lefty reliever. If the Yankees want a high leverage lefty reliever, they are going to have to look for someone not on the current 26-man roster.
The reality is that lefty relief options are in shorter supply than at any time in the league's recent past. With the move to the 3-batter minimum rule, lefty relievers appear to be in very short supply. I looked around the league, and there's just not much out there that I'd be willing to spend prospect capital to acquire. Unless I've missed something, there are really only two realistic options that fit the Yankees' mold.
The first is a popular name: Josh Hader. Hader is probably the best relief pitcher in the sport right now, mixing a high-90s fastball with a deadly slider with absurd horizontal break. He fits the exact mold of the pitch shapes the Yankees prefer at the moment and he is one of the few relief pitchers who would immediately make the team's relief pitching stronger. The problem is that the Brewers remain competitive in the NL Central and Hader is part of the core of their roster. That said, Hader can become a free agent after the 2023 season, so it would not shock me if the Brewers were willing to sell after this year if the price was right, or should the team's performance fall off of a cliff either this year or next. For half a year to a year and change of Hader's services, there will likely be significant competition, so I'd expect the price to be even a bit higher than public estimations of his value. Personally, I don't love the idea of spending real capital on relief pitching, so I'd be leery of this path forward.
The other obvious name is AJ Puk. The Oakland A's are likely willing to trade anything that isn't nailed to the floor for the right price, and Puk's history of arm injuries and fluctuating velocity means that they might be willing to trade high on him. In 2022, he's been pretty great in a bullpen role, allowing just 1 run, with 15 strikeouts while limiting walks and hits to less than 1 per 9 innings over 15 innings of work. The arm talent is there for Puk to be an impact arm in short outings, if he stays healthy. Puk is still rebuilding value, so I'm not sure he gets dealt this year, but moving him as part of a larger package could be in the offing.
In reality though, I think that the Yankees potentially have the next great lefty reliever in-house. Ken Waldichuk is producing video game numbers down in AA and will likely earn the call up to AAA any day now. Scouts worry about his ability to turn lineups over efficiently due to occasionally suspect command, but it hasn't been a problem in 2022. I think Waldichuk has a good chance to be a solid rotation arm, but his floor is as an impact lefty out of the bullpen. It would not shock me if Waldichuk is the next great lefty out of the Yankee bullpen.
Bobby asks: Is it time to jump off of the Jasson Dominguez train? Every report I read seems really negative about his chances of becoming a good ballplayer for the Yankees in the future.
No, now is not the time to jump off of that wagon. Dominguez is still so young, and the tools so readily apparent that jumping ship would be a huge mistake. In fact, rumors of his demise have been somewhat exaggerated. Since May 1st, Jasson Dominguez has hit .268/.348/.537, with an .884 OPS. He's hit 2 homers and gotten 5 out of his 7 walks on the season during that time frame. I am worried about the rate of strikeouts he continues to produce, but the tools are beginning to appear on the field. Dominguez is still very young for Low-A, where almost everyone is older than he is (19 years old). Dominguez may yet be a ballplayer, so keep the faith.
Jason asks: What can the Yankees do about their catching situation? It's really bad right now.
It's not pretty, that's for sure. That said, Jose Trevino has been one of the best defensive catchers in the sport according to the metrics, with his framing stealing significantly more strikes than any other catcher thus far according to Statcast.
Trading for a catcher in-season is difficult as they have to learn a large stable of pitchers without much time to practice. That said, the only true impact catchers that might shake free at the deadline are Sean Murphy (who I've long advocated for) and Willson Contreras, who is a free agent after this season and plays for a Cubs team that's going nowhere. The cost is likely to be significant for either guy, but those are the only two catchers I see that might be worth a high price tag.
Otherwise, I think the Yankees are going to ride it out with who they have. Ben Rortvedt, acquired in the Gary Sanchez/Gio Urshela trade, is back on the rehab trail, and is lauded for his work behind the plate, and his minor league stats indicate that he might yet have some potential with the bat. Catchers' bats are notoriously slow to develop as defense is king on the minor league development circuit, and Rortvedt was always young for his relative league placement. However, in 2021, Rortvedt did put up a .750 OPS in limited appearances at AAA, showing some pop with a .172 ISO. The offensive bar at catcher is low, so the Yankees might owe it to themselves to check out Rortvedt at some point if he forces the issue.