If George Steinbrenner is somewhere watching Brian Cashman and these new Yankees navigate this offseason, he’s undoubtedly ecstatic with their latest move, one that may have never been possible if not for the precedent he had set long ago for this organization.
That precedent, that the New York Yankees will put the best 25 players on the field at any cost, whether it costs them financially or morally, is something the organization seems to be looking to change as of late. However, their latest move, the acquisition of controversial yet historic relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman has George’s fingerprints all over it.
The Chapman acquisition headlines an offseason haul of low-risk, high-reward players that also includes middle infielder Starlin Castro and outfielder Aaron Hicks. It is interesting to note that all three of the Yankees’ key offseason acquisitions still remain 27 years old or younger, and all three were once named consensus top 20 prospects in all of baseball by Baseball America, perhaps the most respected prospect publication, within the last five years.
Yet, all three have been quit on by the teams that developed them for different reasons, and now they all find themselves looking to capitalize on a much needed change of scenery in pinstripes.
Chapman has been nothing short of sensational in four years as the closer of the Cincinnati Reds, and it’s impossible not to think that the Yankees could have one of the greatest bullpens in MLB history with his addition.
There is simply no one in the history of baseball who can touch Chapman’s velocity out of the bullpen. He threw the fastest pitch ever recorded in an MLB game in 2010, reaching a speed of 105.1 MPH. Last season, he threw 336 pitches at a speed of 100 MPH or more. Every other pitcher in Major League Baseball combined to do it just 235 times.
In his career, Chapman has struck out an average of 15.4 hitters per nine innings, the highest rate in MLB history among pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown. He’s blown just 18 of 164 save chances in his career, and holds a career ERA of 2.17. His .154 batting average against is the lowest among players to throw at least 300 innings in the last six seasons.
His dominance can’t be questioned, and now he’s being added to a bullpen that may have no equal in the history of baseball. In the last two seasons combined, the top three MLB leaders in K% were as follows:
- Aroldis Chapman, 46.3%
- Andrew Miller, 41.6%
- Dellin Betances, 39.6%
For now, all three of them reside in the Yankee bullpen. If you combine the stats of Chapman, Miller, and Betances last season into one composite player, you get: 212 IP, 121 H, 14 HR, 93 BB, 347 Ks, and 1.70 ERA. Of the 162 games the Yankees played last season, only 64 were decided by four runs or more. To have three dominant arms to deploy in close games takes a ton of pressure off the Yankees young starting pitchers, and the offense. It’s amazing to think that after the retirement of Mariano Rivera, the Yankees may now find themselves with an even better bullpen than ever before.
Despite all the good the 27-year old Cuban brings on the baseball field, a storm cloud is looming. It’s been reported that back in late October, Chapman was involved in a domestic abuse incident that allegedly involved him choking his girlfriend, and eight gunshots being fired. More than a dozen police officers were dispatched to Chapman’s home, but no arrests were made in the incident due to “conflicting stories and a lack of cooperation.”
A suspension from Major League Baseball is expected for Chapman, and many teams, most notably the Dodgers, have backed away from Chapman negotiations due to the report. The Reds clearly were intent on just getting rid of him, as the Yankees acquired him for four middling prospects. Chapman has one year left before he hits free agency, but a lengthy suspension in 2016 could lead to him having to wait another year before he becomes a free agent, which would give the Yankees an extra year of the flamethrower.
How long Chapman will be suspended for is anyone’s guess. The MLB and MLB Players Association (MLBPA) just agreed on a new domestic violence policy in August, and they have a chance to send a huge statement with how they handle this Chapman situation. Domestic abuse by athletes has become a hot button issue in professional sports recently, and the NFL has faced a PR nightmare in their recent handlings of players such as Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, something the MLB is likely to have in mind when punishing Chapman.
Major League Baseball has a chance to lay the hammer down on a notable player and set a precedent for how domestic abuse cases will be handled, and it’s easy to imagine Chapman will face a long suspension. Some have predicted 25-50 games, others have predicted the whole season. Baseball could send a great message with a long suspension, and it would be the right thing to do.
Regardless of what the league decides, the Yankees have traded for a PR nightmare, but they have also traded for a dominant relief pitcher, and a dominant bullpen. They gave up pennies to do it. From a baseball standpoint, this trade was too good to turn down, but Chapman is still a huge question mark off the field, and will give Yankee haters plenty of new fuel. If he can’t get his act together between now and the day he finishes serving whatever suspension is handed down, it’s possible Chapman has thrown his last pitch in the major leagues. I expect the MLB to come down hard on him, and if he finds himself involved in another domestic incident he may be out of chances.
Chapman Trade Grade: A
You can say a lot of bad things about Chapman, but very few pertain to baseball. If this is an isolated incident, this is a great baseball trade, but another example of why the Yankees are one of the most hated teams in sports. Still, the risk is here, but it didn’t cost much.
Before the Chapman trade, the Bronx Bombers’ biggest move of the offseason was bringing in the once young and highly regarded, but now arguably just young, Chicago Cubs middle infielder Starlin Castro. It’s hard to believe he’s still just 25, as 2016 will already be his seventh full season in the majors. He’s struggled to deliver on an outstanding start to his career.
At the age of 21, Castro was the youngest player to ever lead the National League in hits, a season in which he batted .307 and seemed destined to become a perennial All-Star. He’s been named to two All-Star teams in the four seasons that followed, but he’s been a clear disappointment in Chicago. Since his league-leading hit season, he’s had less hits in every single successive season, while continuing to show poor discipline at the plate and proving that he’s not good enough defensively to be a team’s starting shortstop. He wore out his welcome for a Chicago team with its sights set on a championship, and was seen as an expendable player. The Yankees get team control of Castro for four more years at an affordable $37 million, with a $16 million team option at the end as well.
Castro cost the Yankees swingman pitcher Adam Warren, and utility infielder Brendan Ryan. Warren pitched well for the Yankees last season, but it’s a loss they should be able to withstand, and the need for a bat at one of the middle infield positions was something that couldn’t be ignored.
A move to second base for some of last season yielded more positive reviews defensively for Castro, and it’s believed that is the position he’ll play for the Yankees. He should be a great improvement at least offensively over the stable of near-worthless players New York trotted out in that position last season.
Castro has seen a lot of criticism for not really living up to the fast start to his career, but he’s still one of the most accomplished players in the Major Leagues at his age. His 991 hits through his age 25 season are the 21st most in MLB history for a player of his age, and 14 of the 20 players above him on that list have found their way to the Hall of Fame (15 if A-Rod one day makes it).
That being said, his On-Base Percentage (OBP), has been below .300 in two of the past three seasons, which some would call the Mendoza line for OBP. If he fails to get on base at a .300 clip, and continues to hit in the range of 10-15 HRs while not adding much value on defense, Castro won’t find himself starting for very long. Sandwiched between terrible 2013 and 2015 campaigns for him is a 2014 season where he hit .292 while matching his career high in home runs, and at the very least that’s the player the Yankees need him to be.
To get a 25-year old with a resume as good as Castro’s is incredibly rare, and the solid Warren is a small price to pay for this kind of possible upside. He’ll be 26 on opening day of next season, nearing the age which many players begin to enter their prime. And if the Yankees are getting the prime of the youngest player to ever lead the NL in hits, rather than the prime of the 2013 and 2015 versions of Castro, then this could turn into a real steal for New York. The chances of that, however, are much lower than it once seemed, low enough that the Cubs were already willing to punt four years of team control at a reasonable price for nothing much in return. He’s the Yankees project now, and they certainly have talent to work with.
Castro Trade Grade: B+
The development of top prospect Luis Severino and return of Ivan Nova made Warren expendable, and they shouldn’t miss him too much. The upside here is high at a position of need, and the risk is low both financially and in terms of what was traded.
In a little talked about move this offseason, the Yankees shipped young backup catcher J.R. Murphy to the Twins for former top prospect Hicks. It seems the Yankees are looking to Hicks to replace the departed Chris Young as the team’s fourth outfielder in the immediate future, and his .307/.375/.495 slash line last season against lefties makes him an obvious platoon candidate.
However, it’s likely Cashman is hoping he has more than just a role player in Hicks. In just over 350 at-bats last season, Hicks had by far the best year of his career, hitting .256 with 11 home runs and 13 steals, while playing pretty good defense in the outfield and showing the first signs of Major League promise for a guy who was once expected to be a five-tool player. With a full season of playing time, it doesn’t look out of the question that Hicks could put up numbers similar to what we’ve seen out of Brett Gardner over the last two seasons.
However, that would still be a lot to expect out of Hicks, who has at times simply looked like he didn’t belong in the big leagues. He’s still young, and the gamble is well worth it when you consider he only has to be a part-time player out of the gate. He adds outfield depth and youth to a team that needs it.
The loss of Murphy is one that the Yankees system can handle due to its organizational depth at catcher. They already have Brian McCann, and Gary Sanchez, the guy who they think can eventually be his replacement. New York gets Hicks with four years of team control remaining, and if he can continue to improve into a starting caliber player, he can make Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury more expendable, two players that have seen their names come up in trade rumors.
Just like Castro, Hicks is the Yankees project now, and they’re inheriting a lot of untapped potential that could pay off in the long run.
Hicks Trade Grade: A-
Even if Murphy develops into a serviceable MLB catcher, which is no guarantee itself, it’s a small price to pay for a team set at that position for the time being. Hicks has more upside, and if he turns out to be nothing more than an okay fourth outfielder, he’ll have an impact on the 2016 Yankees.
The Yankees have achieved their goal of getting younger with these three trades, and when you look at the players they’ve traded juxtaposed to the ones they’ve acquired, the talent favors New York by a mile. A change of scenery for troubled players can sometimes make all the difference, and for Hicks and Castro, the move to a hitter-friendly park as they approach their prime years shouldn’t hurt either.
The Yankees aren’t going to go out every offseason and throw the bank at the best available players quite like they used to, and in the long run that might favor them. They desperately need to develop young talent and they’re committed to doing it.
The addition of Chapman to the bullpen could make a significant difference. For a team with so many question marks in the rotation, it takes a ton of pressure off them to know three of the best relief pitchers in baseball are looming in the bullpen. Michael Pineda, Luis Severino and Nathan Eovaldi are all supremely talented young pitchers who will have to play a huge role this year, and it should help their confidence knowing if they can just pitch five to six solid innings any given time out and keep the game close, they’re giving the team a great chance to win. Same goes for C.C. Sabathia.
The bullpen’s ability to keep New York in every game should also pay dividends for an offense expecting big contributions from the trio of Mark Teixera, Carlos Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez, who will be 36, 39, and 41 years old respectively by the end of next season.
It remains to be seen what the team will get out of Hicks and Castro. If Hicks can be as good or better than Young was last season, that will be a big help. And if Castro can be an above-average player at second base, that would be a huge improvement over last season.
How you feel about the Yankees offseason depends whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. A pessimist might say that the Bombers just acquired three players who all have a chance to have no positive impact at all on the 2016 season. An optimist might say they bought low on three guys who were consensus top 20 prospects just five years ago, and are ready to take advantage of a fresh start.
Overall Offseason Grade: A-
The old Bronx Bombers might have given out a huge, lengthy contract to a guy who probably would be way overpaid before the contract was halfway over. The old Yankees might have given up Severino or one of their other top prospects in a trade. These Yankees are rebuilding and staying competitive all at once, taking calculated risk and hanging onto their best prospects while waiting on the huge contracts of the still productive A-Rod and Teixera to end before breaking the bank again. Very un-Yankee like, and for a team that’s won two playoff series in the last six years despite being amongst the league leaders in payroll every year, that might not be such a bad thing.
Article contributed by Michael Akelson. If you’re interested in getting your article(s) in front of New York sports fans, read here.