Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lockdown Bullpen 2016: Remembering When The Yankees Tried It Before

George Steinbrenner thought of it first: put together a lockdown bullpen and shorten the game. Well, at least that seems to be what he was thinking. 

In the off season following the 1977 championship run, the year that Yankee reliever and closer, Sparky Lyle, won the Cy Young award (which struck a blow for relief pitchers everywhere), Steinbrenner wasn't satisfied. Already armed with Lyle in the bullpen, Steinbrenner added free agents Rich "Goose" Gossage and Rawley Eastwick.  Gossage, a former starter had become a heavy duty closer with Pittsburgh. Eastwick had been the closer for the Big Red Machine in their championship years of 1975 and 1976, before being dealt to St Louis mid season 1977. The plan was to use all three in late inning situations. 

As we head into the 2016 season the same plan reverberates loudly through the Yankees previews of the upcoming season. You might have forgotten this big three bullpen was tried in 1978. You probably recalled that the Yankees repeated as champions in 1978, So the plan of using three closer types in 1978 must have panned out, given the Yankees championship success, right?


Not to say that 2016, overall, will work out like 1978. We can only hope. But the reality is, while the 2016 bullpen is a large part of the desire to win championship #28, the bullpen plan of 1978 ran off the tracks rather quickly. Gossage was dominant, Lyle, in the words of Graig Nettles, went "from Cy Young to sayonara," and Eastwick was gone after just eight appearances, going to Philadelphia in a trade in June, Lyle appeared in 58 games to Gossage's 63, but the similarity ends there.

Of the 63 appearances for Gossage, he won 10 and saved 27, either winning or saving 59% of the times he took the mound. Lyle, meanwhile won 9 and saved nine for 18 in 59 appearances on the mound, or 31%. In games in which Gossage pitched, the Yankees went 43-20, a .683 winning percentage. Lyle pitched in games where the Yankees went 30-29, a .508 winning percentage. Yes, they did pitch in the same game a few times, but at this point that overlap really doesn't seem to matter.

The point is that it is very clear Gossage was the go to guy, the high leverage guy, in '78. Gossage lost ten times that year, more evidence of getting the high leverage games, win or lose. With an average of over two innings per outing for Goose it is very clear Lyle that wasn't the eighth inning guy and Goose the 9th inning guy, as would happen today,

In 2016, high leverage guys will be used in the 7th 8th and 9th inning. It wasn't the case in 1978, but isn't it fascinating that the Yankees tried the bullpen trio of closer types way back then? The difference today is that the plan today could work, because relievers rarely pitch more than an inning at a time (Modern day exceptions include Mariano Rivera in 1996 and Dellin Betances in 2014) Lyle, Gossage and probably Eastwick wouldn't go for the methods of today, which explained Eastwick';s early departure and Lyle's subsequent trade to Texas following the '78 season. Gossage was top dog, and he wasn't going to share any innings with another closer type. At least not until April '79 when Goose landed on the disabled list with a thumb injury, When Gossage returned, he remained top dog in the bullpen until he left the Yankees for San Diego.

So for today's closer types, Aroldis Chapman. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, there will be a share of those high leverage innings in 2016. It is a plan that will, most likely be very successful,

Not that you will get agreement from Sparky and the Goose.

Monday, February 1, 2016

With Bird Down, Yankees' Cashman Must Work His Magic Again

You would think that it was already 2017.

As soon as Greg Bird's season-cancelling injury was announced, Yankees Universe responded with a reaction that made me stop and ask myself, "Did I miss something? Did I miss a previous announcement, that Mark Teixeira was already out for the season?

"Maybe I slept through the 2016 season. Yeah, maybe that's it. Teixeira is gone, it's 2017 and Greg Bird has already fallen out of his nest. What are the Yankees going to d-o-o-o-o-o-o?"

Come on, folks. Why is it so hard to remember that there was no spot for Greg Bird on the 2016 25-man roster? He was ticketed for Scranton. The only way he was going to see playing time was if Teixeira got hurt.

Okay, I'm not stupid. I know all about brittle Mark Teixeira. He's going to get hurt. Also, who's to say Greg Bird will actually be ready to go in 2017?  No one knows for sure. However, the moves Brian Cashman has made over the past few years have given me the confidence that he can work his magic once again. Whether it's Dustin Ackley, Pedro Alvarez, Justin Morneau or someone else, there will be someone backing up Tex at 1B on Opening Day. 

Get well soon, Birdie and stay healthy, Tex.

Take a deep breath, Yankees Universe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Yankees Find Balance Between Roster Upgrades & Cost Containment

Last week's acquisition of two minor leaguers from the Dodgers (one of which has already been released and replaced), has filled the Yankees 40 man roster, which might indicate the Yankees off season moves are nearly finished. Open roster spots have always suggested additions may still be on the way. But now that the 40 man roster is full, the only additions might well be for minor league depth or upgrades of players such as the two acquired from the Dodgers. 

Winter moves may otherwise be finished, though we should remind ourselves it is a long way to the trade deadline of  July 31 (August 31 with clearing waivers). So deals can happen well into the season.  But this is a clear indication the Yankees have sworn off signing any of the remaining Major League free agents. The have signed a ton of minor league free agents, but none of the remaining Major League free agents appear to be in play. Not unless a worthwhile player can be had on the cheap and on a one year deal. Not likely, indeed. 

Including the recent trade with the Dodgers, which involved only minor leaguers, the Yankees have completed seven trades this off season. Highlights of these deals include shunning the idea of Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley sharing second base in favor of the Cubs Starlin Castro, and jumping into the  Aroldis Chapman controversy once the Dodgers backed out of their trade with Cincinnati, when stories of domestic abuse involving Chapman surfaced. The question is did the Yankees improve overall?

The best way to answer this question is to break down the roster by position.

Starting Pitching
Off season moves did not address the call by many commentators/bloggers to add a starter. As Brian Cashman recently noted, the Yankees rotation is full, There are six starters for five spots (assuming you don't count the idea of a six man rotation). The names are Tanaka, Severino, Eovaldi, Pineda, Sabathia and Nova, Add Brian Mitchell to the depth chart as number seven, someone who may start at AAA Scranton or serve a role as a long reliever. All but Severino spent time on the DL last season, so concerns are real. But to add a starter would require Cashman to get creative and move a starter or two to open a spot for any newcomer.

The Yankees did add more upper level pitching depth when they dealt reliever Justin Wilson to Detroit for starting prospects Luis Cessa and Chad Green. But did the rotation improve? Not really, unless everyone stays healthy. Also, a full season of Severino may be considered an improvement, So any improvement will occur from within. That measure of improvement may very well be someone actually reaching 200 innings in 2016. Otherwise, did I mention that the trade deadline is still July 31?

The Wilson deal seemed odd at the time because it broke up the late inning trio of Wilson, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Enter Aroldis Chapman. The Chapman deal became an opportunity for Cashman because the Reds' earlier deal with the Dodgers fell apart amid the domestic abuse allegations against Chapman. It is a disturbing story, and Chapman is subject to possible discipline by Major League Baseball. The Yankees entered into the deal fully aware of the possible repercussions from Major League Baseball and the firestorm that has been created by the allegations. The reality is the Yankees added a closer without sacrificing any of their top five prospects, making the Miller-Betances-Chapman bullpen perhaps the best bullpen in all of baseball. A number of good young arms will compete for the final spots in the pen, also an indicator of an improved pen.

Last winter Cashman found a promising young shortstop to replace Derek Jeter, Didi Gregorius started slowly in all aspects of his game, but finished strongly, securing the position for the foreseeable future, This winter Cashman traded pitcher Adam Warren and the "player to be named sooner," Brendan Ryan, for Cubs infielder Starlin Castro. Castro had recently moved from shortstop to second base, and gives the Yankees at long last a suitable replacement for the departed Robinson Cano. Castro has also been touted as a reasonable backup for shortstop and third base, Mark Teixeira enters the final year of his contract at first base with Greg Bird waiting in the wings, Chase Headley returns, hoping to put a rough 2015 campaign behind him. The second base nightmare may well be over, so on that count the infield, indeed, is improved.

Brett Gardner seemed destined to be traded this winter. Better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late and all that. Gardner remains a Yankee despite the addition of Aaron Hicks from Minnesota, who will likely serve as a fourth outfielder. While Gardner was likely shopped, it was never a given that he would be dealt, It is reasonable to assume Cashman was never offered a package he liked in exchange for Gardner. Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury each turn 33 in 2016. Carlos Beltran turns 39 in April, which means there will likely be lots of opportunity for the switch hitting Hicks, who is strongest from the right side. Keeping the injury prone Ellsbury healthy may mean more frequent  days off . Expect Hicks to spell all three and also serve as a late inning replacement for Beltran in right field. Time will tell if there is improvement in the outfield.

Brian McCann remains the incumbent, but with the trade of John Ryan Murphy for Hicks the Yankees backup will be either Austin Romine (who is out of options) or the vastly improved Gary Sanchez. The decision might come down to the desire to give Sanchez regular playing time at AAA while maintaining depth at the position. On the other hand, Sanchez might force the issue much like Jorge Posada once did in gradually earning playing time against the  incumbent catcher of his early career, Joe Girardi.

Designated Hitter
No surprise that Alex Rodriguez will be the full time DH with little chance of playing third base, or perhaps first base, The 2016 season could be an exciting one for A-Rod, who needs 27 home runs to match Babe Ruth at 714. It should be mentioned here that the four biggest contracts will be gone within two years, Teixeira and Beltran after 2016 and A-Rod and Sabathia after 2017. The Yankees will soon enter an area of more roster flexibility as multiple players might share the DH spot. The four contracts, once gone will free up well over 80 million from the payroll, which offers another type of flexibility,

So, when Hal Steinbrenner says the Yankees need to lower payroll, as evidenced by other teams winning championships with much lower payrolls, believe him. The transactions so far this off season have placed the Yankees in a position to more than reach their payroll goals within two years, once the four large contracts come off the books, all while adding younger players with promise. In that respect, though it remains a work in progress, the Yankees off season, so far,  has been a success.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Chapman Closer, Other Roles Clarified For 2016 Yankees

With a little more than a month until Pitchers and Catchers, MLB is entering the home stretch of the off-season. Last night, on the Yankees' hot stove TV show, manager Joe Girardi provided some clarity regarding Spring Training and beyond:

LHP Aroldis Chapman will be the closer going into camp.

Alex Rodriguez, who was strictly a DH last season, will be the same in 2016.

OF Aaron Hicks could play four to five times a week, giving lots of rest to Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury.

C Gary Sanchez, a prime candidate for the backup job, will be watched closely all Spring. The job might be his to lose.

The words were barely out of Girardi's mouth before some fans began to complain that it wasn't fair to Andrew Miller. Hold your horses, folks. It's only Spring Training. Who knows what could happen before Opening Day? An injury. A suspension. Just wait and see.

Elsewhere in Yankees Universe, the LoHud Yankees Blog has a post up about a scenario in which Rob Refsnyder gets playing time at 2B, even with Starlin Castro in the lineup.  It will depend on different factors, so don't hold your breath. Read the post here.

Stay warm, folks!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Trade Breakdown: Aroldis Chapman To The Yankees

On the surface of it, the Aroldis Chapman trade looks like a steal for the New York Yankees.  The hardest throwing reliever in all of MLB was acquired for no more than four mid-level prospects.  If Brian Cashman is to be believed, Chapman will form, with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, what could turn out to be the best bullpen back-end in Major League history.

Of course, the reason the trade was a steal is very disturbing. Chapman's legal troubles have been well-documented, so I won't go into detail here. However, while he was neither arrested nor charged with a crime, MLB continues to investigate and, under the league's new domestic violence policy, could suspend Chapman for a period of time during the upcoming season.

The key words here are "for a period of time." Chapman is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2016 season. However, depending on if and how long he is suspended, that might not happen. The consensus seems to be that a suspension of at least 46 games will push Chapman's service time back far enough that he won't hit the free agent market for another season.

I'm hoping this will happen, not only because of the seriousness of the alleged crime, but because the trade will make more sense. Yes, the price for Chapman's acquisition was four mid-level prospects, but that seems a bit much for someone who will only be around for one season. (No, it is not a given that they'll sign him. Remember, these are no longer George Steinbrenner's Yankees.)

In any case, the Yankees got a tremendous left-handed reliever, one that is 100 times better than Justin Wilson, who they traded earlier this month. Also, with the three-headed monster that now (or, perhaps, only currently) occupies the bullpen, that low-on-innings starting rotation shouldn't generate as much worry as it did before yesterday.

Welcome to the Yankees, Mr Chapman.