Taking Stock Of This Offseason’s Roster Moves
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: John Munson, NJ Advanced Media for NJ.com
After a seemingly endless amount of time waiting for teams around baseball to make some moves, I think we’ve finally reached a point where the bulk of the work the Yankees planned to complete prior to Spring Training is finished. In December, I mused that a good, realistic Yankee offseason would see the team re-sign DJ LeMahieu or a contact-oriented left-handed batter, fortify the bullpen, and supplement the rotation with a cheap reclamation arm. Well, Brian Cashman came pretty darn close to fulfilling that prediction. LeMahieu is back in the fold and he added two cheap reclamation arms with upside, though the bullpen has yet to really see real change. Over the coming weeks, I will be diving deeper into the outlook for key components of the Yankees’ 2021 plan, but for now, I want to provide a quick and dirty summary and analysis of what came in versus what left the Yankees this offseason.
(A quick note about projections: wherever they are referenced below, projections are all taken from the ZiPS projection system as it stands today. Generally, ZiPS has a tendency to be appropriately conservative in its projections and heavily weights recent performance in accordance with relevant aging curves. I look at a number of projection systems when researching player outlooks, but I consistently find ZiPS to be well-balanced, and appropriately sobering on a rate basis. I will note where I disagree with the projections, but I think ZiPS is the most useful projection system to use as a starting point.)
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Technically, it’s still possible that either or both of Paxton and/or Gardner could return. Of those two, I really only see Gardner as a possibility. ZiPS sees Paxton as a bounce-back candidate in 2021, projecting 2.7 WAR, with a 3.92 ERA and 119.1 IP. That seems surprisingly bullish considering the fact that Paxton has consistently dealt with injuries throughout his career, and last season saw those injuries sap Paxton of an alarming amount of velocity (without which he cannot survive as a power pitcher with limited command). Additionally, he’s already 32 years old, entering the end of what one would expect to be his physical peak as a pitcher. I am very skeptical of Paxton’s ability to hit the marks projected by ZiPS given all of the factors that exist ancillary to the stats he’s produced in recent years.
Brett Gardner will likely still be a useful outfielder that can play LF or CF on a short-term basis. Even despite his age, ZiPS projects Gardner at 1.8 WAR, .771 OPS, and good defense in 443 PA. In an ideal world, he won’t get 443 PA, but I think he would still be a valuable 4th outfielder, should the Yankees bring back Gardy for another year (I hope they do, as long as it’s not at Clint Frazier’s expense).
Masahiro Tanaka is the only player on this list with significant positive playoff experience, and he provided the Yankees with consistent mid-rotation innings throughout his time in pinstripes. ZiPS projects 2.3 WAR and a 4.58 ERA over 137.2 IP. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that line is indicative of what Tanaka has provided the Yankees in the last couple of years. I wanted to see Tanaka return, but I also understand that the Yankees know Tanaka better than anyone, and can be clear-eyed about projecting him moving forward, and there were red flags in his profile. Tanaka has become increasingly homer prone as the ball has changed, and his trademark splitter has become less effective over time. Given the changes to the baseball (more tightly wound, harder feeling cover, etc.), I don’t particularly think it’s likely that Tanaka’s old splitter will be rediscovered in the coming year or two. Additionally, only the Yankees know what Tanaka’s elbow looks like right now. It has been impressive that Tanaka pitched successfully for years with a partially torn UCL, but I wonder how close the clock might be to midnight before Tanaka finally has to go under the knife. Despite the seeming certainty Tanaka could have provided, I can understand why the Yankees do not share ZiPS’ projection going forward.
JA Happ projects to be a nearly-capable 5th starter, with 1.6 WAR and a 4.57 ERA over 124 IP. The relationship between Happ and the Yankees was broken, so a return was never in the cards. Frankly, I didn’t trust Happ any more than the Yankees did in the 2020 playoffs, and while he might hit that projection with the Twins, I don’t think it was likely with the Yankees.
Ottavino is a talented pitcher, who had clearly fallen out of Aaron Boone’s circle of trust in 2020. The walk rate just got too high and the contact numbers against are just too alarming to be dependable, though ZiPS still projects a bounce-back of sorts, projecting 0.8 WAR and a 3.48 ERA over 54.3 IP. While I didn’t hate the trade, I still expect Ottavino to strike out the side at some point this summer against the righty-heavy Yankee lineup.
Neither Smith nor Escotto would have played in the Bronx in 2021 unless something went terribly, terribly wrong. Contreras may have had an outside chance of contributing in a spot start or some long-relief later this year if he continued to develop without minor league games in 2020, but he likely would not have thrown more than a few innings in 2021 for the Yanks, at best.
Yajure projects as a back-end starter in 2021, but he was behind multiple starters on the depth chart for the Yankees, and likely was looking at =/- 50 innings in the Majors this year, so his impact to the 2021 Yankees would likely have been minimal.
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Don’t call it a comeback – he’s been here for years! OK, terrible jokes and old-school hip hop references aside, the Yankees accomplished Mission Number 1 this offseason by re-signing DJ LeMahieu to a 6-year, $90 million contract. $15 million average annual value was significantly less than pretty much anyone projected, and it gave the Yankees more room under the first luxury tax threshold in 2021 (sigh) than even they likely could have expected. LeMahieu projects to be the Yankees’ 2nd most valuable position player via WAR (behind Gleyber Torres!), with 4.2 WAR and an .820 OPS over 598 PA. LeMahieu has been both durable and valuable throughout his short time in pinstripes, so he is a good bet to at least meet these numbers. ZiPS is still hedging its bets with LeMahieu in the power department, which is fair given that his power has soared to career highs with the Yankees. However, the gopher ball is likely here to stay, and LeMahieu’s opposite field, line drive approach plays beautifully at Yankee Stadium, so I think LeMahieu is likely to beat his projected .463 SLG if he makes the contact we expect him to make. I tend to prefer conservative projections, but I’d bet on the over on LeMahieu beating ZiPS’ projected numbers in 2021.
Corey Kluber hasn’t hardly pitched in the last 2 seasons. For that reason, he has a lot in common with the Yankees’ other major pitching acquisition this offseason, Jameson Taillon. Given the scary recent injury history for both pitchers, the Yankees are taking a very real risk in counting on these guys to play a heavy role in the 2021 rotation. However, the upside to this risk is clear when looking at both players’ conservative projections.
Corey Kluber is projected to produce 2.5 WAR and a 3.87 ERA over 118.2 IP. On a rate basis, this assumes that Kluber is something between the ace he was in 2017 and 2018, and the banged-up, struggling pitcher we briefly saw in 2019. On the plus side, the data we have from his incredibly brief appearance in 2020 shows that his stuff was relatively intact prior to a tear in his Teres Major muscle in his pitching shoulder. Additionally, we know that teams were impressed with Kluber’s showcase earlier this offseason, and the Yankees had eyes and ears on Kluber’s progression throughout his offseason training regimen, so they clearly feel pretty good about Kluber’s stuff. Even in 118.2 IP, he could easily eclipse the expected performances that Tanaka, Happ, or Paxton in 2021. More to the point, if Kluber proves to be more durable than ZiPS projects, than he could be worth closer to 3-4 WAR in 2021.
Jameson Taillon is in a similar boat. Taillon projects to produce 1.6 WAR and a 4.23 ERA in 106.1 IP, though there is an important caveat we need to discuss when trying to project Taillon. Taillon was known as a sinkerballer in PIT (like every PIT pitcher under pitching coach, Ray Searage) despite displaying good spin rates on his four-seam fastball and breaking balls. It would not shock me in the slightest to see the Yankees tweak Taillon’s repertoire much in the same fashion that the Astros did for Gerrit Cole, helping Taillon unlike hidden strikeout potential by working his four-seamer up in the zone while pounding the bottom of the zone with breaking and off-speed stuff. Additionally, Taillon has worked over the last year to shorten up his arm action in his delivery, long pointed to as a reason for his issues with durability. Add it all up, and Taillon may both perform better on a rate basis than ZiPS projects while also throwing more than 106.1 IP.
Darren O’Day is Ottavino’s replacement, and on a rate basis, they project similarly. ZiPS projects O’Day to produce 0.3 WAR with a 3.73 ERA in 31.3 IP. O’Day has struggled with durability in recent years, hence the low innings total, but he was healthy in 2020, and pitched well, so there is hope that he can continue the trend in 2021. Realistically, the difference between O’Day and Ottavino from a rate-based projection standpoint is negligible.
Tyler Lyons and Jhoulys Chacin project to be up-and-down arms for the bullpen or rotation, respectively. I do not expect either guy to throw significant innings for the Yankees in 2021, but they both project to be replacement level players, or slightly better in Chacin’s case. In reality, I wouldn’t expect to see much value from either player in 2021.
Greg Allen is the hedge against Brett Gardner leaving in Free Agency (though Mike Tauchman is still around, and the Yankees think highly of him). Allen projects as a replacement-level player almost entirely on the back of his speed and defense. It is important to note that the Yankees made a trade with the Padres when they designated Allen for assignment, and have kept him on the 40-man roster even as they’ve made other moves, so they clearly see something here. I’m not necessarily saying we’re witnessing a Gio Urshela or Luke Voit level heist here, but the Yankees have had recent success in developing diamonds in the rough that have been left in other teams’ discard pile. Given Allen’s speed/defense profile, he doesn’t need to hit much to be valuable.
Brito and Montero do not project to see any time in New York this year, though ZiPS sees a player that is slightly better than replacement-level in Brito.
On the surface, one can look at the moves the Yankees made this offseason and say that they really didn’t improve the roster based on the conservative projections. However, there is very good reason to believe that the pitchers the Yankees added to the rotation this offseason are better on a rate basis than the pitchers they are replacing. In Taillon’s case, he may even be able to improve his rate-based stats with some needed modifications, and there’s some evidence that he’s going to do just that. It’s not a stretch to imagine either beating their current projections from a playing time standpoint, in which case, they are both likely to eclipse what any combination of 2 of Paxton, Happ, and Tanaka can provide in 2021. Add in the fact that young pitchers currently in the Yankees’ stable, namely Deivi Garcia, Jordan Montgomery, and Clarke Schmidt, are likely to take further steps forward in 2021, and that combination will surely help negate any lost value from the pitchers that left this offseason.
The projections also confirm that DJ LeMahieu remains likely to be nearly elite in 2021, providing stability to the Yankee infield, so the offense is set to return a group that projects to be one of the best in the Majors. All things considered, I have to tip my hat to Cashman: he has taken some calculated risks, but I think the bar is pretty low to surpass expectations based on the conservative projections I see. That bodes well for the Yankees’ performance in 2021.