It’s Winter Meetings Eve, and if this were 2017 or 2018, you’d find me hoping and praying that the annual jamboree would mean the beginning of hot stove season.
This year, however, things look a lot less bleak on this front. There’s already been quite a bit of activity around the league. The Reds and Padres are intent on pushing in the chips for immediate contention, while the White Sox are deploying a slightly less aggressive version of the same strategy. One of the better free-agent pitchers on the market, Zack Wheeler, is already off the board and headed to Philly.
We are still waiting for the Yankees to make a big move. They have already met with both Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg to pitch why New York would be the best fit for them, and the proclamation from ownership that the record deal for Cole will be there provided he wants to come to New York is about as encouraging as we could hope for at this point.
But the Yankees are still a different team than they were at the end of their playoff run. They’ve made coaching changes, they’ve issued statements on their farm system through their choices of Rule 5 protections, and they’ve waved goodbye to disappointing veterans and longtime prospects alike. Let’s take a look at the first month-plus of the Yankees offseason, offer some takes about what they’ve done, and make some predictions for the future.
Staff: Rothschild Out, Blake and Swanson In
I wrote some commentary on the departure of Larry Rothschild and the arrival of Matt Blake when it happened about a month ago. My basic conclusion was that the choice seemed like a good one, but there wasn’t enough information available for a definitive conclusion. With the passage of time, we’ve learned a bit more – and at this point, I’m comfortable enough to say that I love this move, and I think it’s the most important thing the Yankees have done so far in the offseason. For one thing, Blake was part of the delegation that flew out to California to visit with Cole and Strasburg, along with Brian Cashman, Aaron Boone, and Andy Pettitte (!!). It’s encouraging that the team would make Blake a part of the pitch team, so to speak, for what could be its most important free agent signings in years.
Additionally, for those with Athletic subscriptions, Lindsey Adler recently sat down with Blake for an interview. These Q&As with new hirings and signings tend to be pretty formulaic; the addition will offer some compelling rhetoric about loving the organization, being happy to be there, and being confident and optimistic about the future. But Blake didn’t stop at the pleasantries. With considerable assistance from Adler’s incisive questioning, Blake gave us a great look at who he is as a person and a coach, and I came away very impressed. He stressed his college education in psychology and philosophy as part of what makes him effective at the jobs he’s held. He feels comfortable connecting with personalities and building relationships, something that’s just as important as the technical and analytical acumen he also clearly brings to the position. From both a fan-excitement and a baseball operations perspective, I see nothing not to like about Blake, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the staff.
Much of the same commentary applies to the decision to bring on Tanner Swanson as catching coordinator. Fresh off two seasons with the Twins, Swanson delivers an excellent resume. At his prior job, Adler reports (again, subscription required), he was instrumental in the development of Mitch Garver from below-average defensively to one of the better backstops in baseball. Crucially, the numbers suggest that Garver was able to improve tremendously in his framing without sacrificing his blocking skills. Provided Swanson is able to work the same magic with Gary Sánchez, the Kraken makes the jump from All-Star power hitter and defensive liability to possibly the best catcher in the game. My heart flutters just thinking about it.
Swanson also received glowing praise from colleagues and former players at the University of Washington, where he coached before moving to the Twins. “At the college level, we’re all teachers – Tanner redefined that” (head coach Lindsay Meggs), and “I’ve never had a coach that was more…invested in me, personally” (former Huskies catcher and current Tigers prospect Joey Morgan) are two of the soundbites from Bradford William Davis’ reporting that stand out. Much like Blake, Swanson seems to have a handle on the technical attributes of his job while combining a sense for people that elevates him from a good coach to an inspiring leader. Get excited.
Roster: 40-Man Moves, Departures, And A Trade
Decisions were made with regard to the on-field product as well. On November 20, the Yankees added seven minor leaguers to their 40-man roster in order to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place on the final day of the upcoming Winter Meetings. Three of the selections were more or less obvious: Estevan Florial, Deivi Garcia, and Luis Gil, three of the consensus best prospects in the system, were protected. Garcia exploded onto the scene this season and solidified his credentials as the system’s best pitcher, while Gil also cashed in a solid campaign with Charleston. Florial’s injury issues and slipping production has affected his value, but the raw tools are still present, and his 2020 will be crucial.
The other four protections are a mixed bag of possibilities and potential. The headliner of the group is Luis Medina. The 20-year-old righty flamethrower is a guy who was talked about like Garcia just a couple of seasons ago, but issues with command had caused his star to fade. In April and May, Medina didn’t inspire much confidence. His K/BB ratios in those months, respectively: 15/13 and 19/23. Not good! But in June, Medina turned a corner. The ratios in the subsequent three months look like this: 28/14, 36/14, 29/6. His OPS allowed: .724, .650, .387. Medina sparkled so brightly for Charleston as the season reached the stretch run that he earned two starts in Tampa at the very end of the year. And he acquitted himself beautifully – particularly in the first, in which he tossed five innings and allowed a single earned run while striking out eight and walking one.
Miguel Yajure, another righty starter with worlds of potential, pitched his way onto the protected list with a strong showing for Tampa, where he posted a 2.26 ERA. Like Medina, Yajure earned a late-season cameo with the next rung on the ladder. In two starts for Trenton, he struck out a batter per inning and allowed just one run. Brooks Kriske and Nick Nelson, the last two prospects protected, are on the older side (Kriske is 25, Nelson is 24). But both submitted solid campaigns at the Double-A level and look forward to futures as bullpen options and depth pieces.
So where’d they find the room? Yankees brass had to make some space to protect these seven youngsters in the form of three additional roster spots. First up was the much-anticipated release of Jacoby Ellsbury, who takes his place in the pantheon of terrible free-agent signings and may very well have a shelf in the cabinet all his own. Word out of the organization is that, based on an allegation of breach of contract, the Yankees are trying to avoid paying Ellsbury the salary for his one additional year of entitlement. A fitting mess to conclude a horrific situation. The Ellsbury fiasco has been a nightmare since news of the awful contract first broke, and I don’t think the team is doing itself any favors by pressing this issue. Ellsbury isn’t the one that offered the bad deal, and he’s a client of Scott Boras, a man the Yankees need on their side this offseason.
Much more disappointing, albeit understandable, was the decision to finally part ways with erstwhile top prospect Greg Bird. Bird was the first member of the first wave of the Baby Bombers to make his way to the big leagues, and scarcely a fan has forgotten the magic that followed. He surged onto the scene in August of 2015, then just 22 years of age, and crushed 11 homers in 46 games, solidifying himself as the heir apparent to Mark Teixeira and endearing himself to fans with his sweet lefty swing and an odd hairless cat. It still pains me to write that those few months were the best it would ever get for Bird in pinstripes. He lost the entire 2016 season due to injury, then suffered another setback in Spring Training of 2017 that cost him nearly that entire season as well. And with the exception of his scoreless tie-breaking home run in Game 3 of the memorable 2017 ALDS, Bird hasn’t hit a lick in years, all while failing to stay on the field. It just wasn’t meant to be for Bird in New York. I genuinely wish him all the best moving forward, and I hope he finds a spot on a big-league roster somewhere. He’s certainly got the talent to make a living in this game.
Finally, as a footnote, the Yankees designated Nestor Cortes Jr. for assignment and eventually traded him to Seattle for international bonus money. Nasty Nestor shuffled and slide-stepped his way into our hearts this past season, not only because of his badly-needed innings eating but also with his arm slot changes, funky deliveries, and willingness to ride the Scranton Shuttle back and forth for weeks on end. Cortes faltered towards the end of the season but is a useful pitcher who will find a job somewhere, even if it means playing the Triple-A swingman role. It’s not sexy, but it’s important, and Cortes did it as well as anyone.
Those of you expecting a spicy take in here somewhere are going to come away disappointed. I can’t find a reason to dispute any of the moves the Yankees have made thus far this offseason. Blake and Swanson were excellent hires, the right 40-man protections were made, and the decision to say goodbye to Ellsbury, Bird, and Cortes were well-founded. The first weeks of a critical period were handled with the competency that we all expect and deserve. With the word out that the Yankees are going to be serious suitors for the top free-agent starting pitchers, there is a reason to be optimistic that the team is setting itself up to maximize its open championship window. While we wait for the big dominoes to fall, we can take solace in the fact that the brass is taking care of business for now.