Weekly Mailbag: Ellsbury’s Contract, TJS for Position Players, Left Field, and the Final Rotat
Okay, it’s official: 2019 never actually ended. New Year celebrations were all a clever lie, and much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Yankee fans are destined to wake each day to the same horrific set of injury woes that plagued the previous season. We’re not even in March yet, and already Sevy, Paxton, Stanton, and Judge are down, and only Judge is currently projected to start the season on the 26-man roster. I’ve said multiple times that all of the changes that the Yankees made this off-season to their training and medical staff were not likely to show noticeable changes immediately, but I can’t say I expected the first weeks of Spring Training to look like this.
For a team that supposedly worked hard to look within itself to correct its issues with at least diagnosing and managing initial injuries, the Yankees sure seem to have messed up with their response to at least Sevy’s injured elbow. I am not a doctor (and I don’t even play one on TV), but why didn’t the Yankees order an MRI with contrast when Sevy complained of elbow pain again in the off-season after in Game 3 of the ALCS? It is a relatively inoffensive procedure, and when the doctors didn’t find anything symptomatic to cause Severino’s pain, it just doesn’t seem terribly forward thinking to eschew further testing. Had they found the tear in December, we could have reasonably expected him to be back in the first half of the 2021 season. Now he won’t be back until at least post-All Star break next year. It just stinks. I want 2019 to end already.
In this week’s mailbag, we’ll talk about Ellsbury’s contract status, Tommy John Surgery for position players, Left Field, and the final rotation spot. Let’s get at it:
David C. asks: What is the status of the Yankees not paying Ellsbury for the 2020 season?
As of right now, there has been no judgement with regards to Ellsbury’s contract or Luxury Tax hit for the 2020 season. I’m sure the Yankees would love to be in the same situation as the Mets, who were able to get Yoenis Cespedes to settle for a pittance relative to the salary that had originally been negotiated for this season. Honestly, I don’t know how likely that scenario really is. Ellsbury’s camp, at least via the media, has dug its heels in pretty heavily, so I don’t think a settlement between the Yankees and Ellsbury is particularly likely. That means the decision will ultimately fall to some form of arbitration, and who knows what will come of that scenario.
Personally, I don’t think that Ellsbury did anything other than do his best to get back on the field and honor his contract. None of us like the Ellsbury contract, and there were tons of voices and opinions railing against the signing at the time as well, but the Yankees were the ones who made the decision to give him a long-term, guaranteed contract. I understand and am constantly reminded that the Yankees are a business and are trying to make as much money as possible, and recouping at least some of Ellsbury’s salary helps accomplish that goal, but I’m not a fan of attacking the means by which Ellsbury tried to get back on the field.
As far as how Ellsbury’s contract affects the Yankees roster? It’s mostly money, although the Yankees will have their top draft pick in the Rule 4 Draft moved back 10 spots in the event that their luxury tax hit moves beyond $250 million. Losing Ellsbury’s contract helps them get below that number, but honestly, moving the draft pick back isn’t that penal. Particularly if the Yankees pick last in next year’s draft anyway (yes, I’m still all-in on a World Series win this year).
Mark asks: I guess now days you expect Tommy John surgery with pitchers. Are there statistics on position players needing the surgery? It seems the Yankees have been plagued with numerous position players hoping down needing the surgery over the last 5-10 years. How do they compare to other teams?
This is a really great question, and one to which I really didn’t know the answer. Anecdotally, Tommy John Surgery seems like a relatively common occurrence for position players, but I didn’t have any evidence to back it up. However, I did find this article over at SB Nation. I highly recommend reading the full article, because it has a lot of interesting research, but I’ll give you the jist here: Tommy John Surgery for position players has become much more common since 2000. I don’t have a team-by-team breakdown, but there’s little question but that the Yankees have dealt with multiple position players who have required TJS.
Gregorius and Hicks are similar in that both have plus, to better arms. Hicks pitched during his prep years, and Didi makes a ton of throws from the left side of the diamond every day, so it’s not altogether surprising that either eventually had issues with their UCL. However, it’s important to note that UCL injuries can occur even in guys that don’t have huge velocity. Kyle Higashioka has never been known for having a plus arm at catcher, yet he required the famous ligament replacement procedure as a minor leaguer in the Yankee system, significantly delaying his ascent to the majors.
There are two major issues with performing the surgery on position players. For one, rehab and recovery timelines for position players is nowhere near as standardized as it is today for pitchers. Remember how many pitchers struggled to ever recover from Tommy John when teams were bringing them back in 9-12 months in the early 2000s? Well, evidence suggests that we may be in the same boat with position players. Per the SB nation article, the majority of position players who have TJS are less valuable in terms of total value and on a per-plate appearance basis, using WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ WAR calculation) and DRC+ (another Baseball Prospectus measure of total offensive value).
Personally, I wonder how much research like this had on the Yankees’ decision to let Didi walk in Free Agency. I also worry about what Tommy John Surgery means for Aaron Hicks’ likely output when he returns. Hicks already had back woes, and now he will deal with an elbow recovery as well. I think we need to temper our performance expectations for someone like Hicks, and I think that the baseball industry as a whole needs to re-evaluate current methods for rehabbing position players from Tommy John Surgery.
David B. asks: Now that Stanton is injured (again!) how will Left Field shake out?
It’s a touch premature to discuss a Stanton-less Opening Day roster just yet, but let’s go for it anyway. I think that there are three guys who directly benefit from an injury to Stanton: Miguel Andujar, Mike Ford, and Clint Frazier. I know that you may be surprised by two of the names on this list, but allow me to explain.
Miguel Andujar is fighting to make the roster as a jack-of-all-trades piece that can play passably at multiple defensive positions with a bat that begs to be in the lineup. Andujar has options remaining, and he missed all of last season, so the Yankees could have decided to give him some at-bats at AAA to ease back into playing in real games while learning the outfield and first base in a professional, but less meaningful situation. Getting Stanton’s at-bats out of the lineup makes it much easier to fit Andujar on the roster.
Mike Ford is probably the most surprising name on my list. Right now, Ford is blocked by Voit for regular at-bats at 1B, and his presence on the roster would be as a pinch hitter and occasional DH/1B. There are far more DH at-bats available without Stanton in the lineup, and Ford’s quest to make the big league roster is much easier without Stanton around.
Clint Frazier is the obvious name. All of us expected the Yankees to find a deal for Frazier, but here he is, fighting for a Major League roster spot yet again in Yankee Spring Training. Frazier is determined to prove to the Yankees that he can be an everyday Left Fielder both defensively and offensively. More than anyone else, even over Tauchman, I think the Yankees will be willing to roll the dice with Frazier to see what he can do in the early offing if Stanton is out for a few weeks to start the season.
Brian asks: Now that the Yankees have lost two major pieces in their starting rotation, is going back to the opener a way to bridge the gap?
I’ve been thinking the exact same thing. I think that Monty will be a very capable fourth starter, and we can count on him to provide both innings and solid performance. The Yankees do have depth, but most of their options for the 5th starter spot are either grizzled vets looking to hang on, young guys who likely need more seasoning in the minors, or guys who probably are best suited to different roles. Of the guys who are probably best suited to different roles, I think that Jonathan Loaisiga is the top of the crop. While I don’t think Loaisiga can hold up physically in a traditional starter role, I do think that he’d be great in the bulk role we saw guys like Nestor Cortes fill last season.
Chad Green has said all off-season that he would not likely reprise his role as opener this season, but I think that the Yankees can get real value out of the 5th rotation spot early in the year by using Green to open for 1-2 innings, followed by Loaisiga for 3-4 innings. It means that the Yankees need to be careful with their bullpen usage and planning, but on a team that will likely carry 13 pitchers, this should be more than doable. I love the idea, given the Yankees’ circumstances, and I hope we see it once the Yankees need a 5th starter in the season’s 2nd week.
That’s all for this week – you guys really kept me on my toes this week. Keep the great questions coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, and I’ll do my best to give them a good answer. Have a great weekend, and let’s hope the Yankee body count doesn’t increase further.