In theory, to win the championship you have to have the best team in your sport. However, it sure seems like the team with the best record heading into the MLB playoffs has a smaller chance of winning the World Series than the worst team in the NBA does of winning the draft lottery. Part of the reason that the MLB playoffs are such a crapshoot every year is that there is so much parity in baseball towards the top. In other words, there are many teams that were more than qualified to win it all and won’t have to do much to get to baseball’s biggest stage next year. In this series, I will be looking at how each team that made the playoffs can go about turning its current roster into a team fit to take on baseball’s biggest stage during this offseason. I am using WAR as the determinant for how good a team is, and will compare each team to the teams from the past twenty World Series to see whether or not they can win it all. I am assuming that both the World Series winner and the World Series loser could have won the championship, since seven games do not prove that the losing team could not have beaten the winning team. Because of this, I am looking at each league (AL and NL) separately, because to get to the World Series you only need to be the best in your league, and we are assuming that each team that is the best in its league is good enough to win.
Finally, there are two steps to this: a team first has to make the playoffs and then must win the World Series. Not every team that made the playoffs last year was one of the top 5 teams in its league, according to WAR. For the first step, I am looking at the fifth best team, per WAR, and saying that each team that wishes to make the playoffs must reach this mark. Next, not everyone used during the season is used in the playoffs or the World Series, so for the second part I am looking at both the WAR for the top 12 and top 16 players on each team. I’m not sure exactly where the cutoff should be, but I am guessing somewhere in that range, so we’ll look at both. Before we get to our first team, here are the cutoffs determined by those methods. These numbers are taken from ESPN and Baseball Reference.
New York Yankees
Last year’s recap:
Lost in Wild Card Game to the Houston Astros.
Total WAR: 41.6
Top 12 WAR: 33.9
Top 16 WAR: 39.3
The good news for the Yankees is that this team was good enough statistically to make the playoffs. The bad news is that it were nowhere near ready to compete for its 28th title. In addition,the Yankees will not spend much money (if any) this winter, and their surprisingly productive older players are not getting younger. Put simply, the Yankees have their work cut out for them if they want to end up world champs. Of course, there are rumors that the Yankees are interested in some of the top pitchers on the market, but I think most of those guys will be driven out of their price range for this offseason. It seems like Hal Steinbrenner wants some money off the books before they spend big again. Keeping all of this in mind, here is what I propose for the Yankees this offseason:
1. Don’t trade Brett Gardner
There will be many people writing and saying that the Yankees don’t have much flexibility and their most tradable piece is Gardner, so they should look to deal him. Not that they would be listening in the first place, but the Yankees should ignore everything they hear about why trading Gardner might be a good idea. People are pointing to his second half collapse and his unwillingness to steal bases as reasons to do so. Reports have also surfaced that a wrist injury was the reason that he stopped running and didn’t play as well in the second half. Whether he collapsed, was injured, neither, or both, here is what I see:
2014: 87 R, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 21/26 SB, .256/.327/.422, 4.0 WAR in 148 games
2015: 94 R, 16 HR, 66 RBI, 20/25 SB, .259/.343/.399, 3.3 WAR in 151 games
Brett Gardner was pretty much the same player in 2015 over the course of the season that he was in 2014. The main difference for the drop in WAR was that his defensive WAR decreased by .5 from .3 to -.2. I don’t have this recorded anywhere, but for what it’s worth, I do believe that he had a positive DWAR around the midway point of the season, which is when they are saying the injury took place. Regardless of whether or not the injury was a factor, Gardner may just not steal bases that often and he may not be a .275 hitter. However, that doesn’t matter because he is still a pretty good bet for around 3.5 WAR. There is no evidence suggesting that if a player’s second half stats are different than his first half stats then he is going to play like he did in the second half of the year throughout the next season (see Josh Donaldson). The point is, why would you trade 3.5 wins above replacement to a team that might have concerns over his wrist or second half decline? He is making $13.5 million next year, which is far below the going rate for a player of that production, so it is unlikely that the Yankees would retain any financial relief by trading him for a player of equal value. Ultimately, Gardner earned this team the 2nd most wins of any hitter (Teixeira was 1st) and third overall (Betances), and I can’t see any real way in which this team improves by shipping him out.
2. Trade Mark Teixeira along with Austin Romine and $12 million to the Astros for Josh Fields
Remember that thing I said last sentence about how Teixeira had the highest WAR on the team even though he got hurt towards the end of the season? Now I’m telling you that they should consider trading him. Teixeira is set to make $23 million this year and he is a free agent after the 2016 season. That sounds a lot more tradable than it did a year ago, especially when you consider that the Yankees could be willing to eat some of his salary if they could also save a lot of money. Let’s start with the Astros side of this: Teixeira (3.8 WAR) would represent a sizeable upgrade over Chris Carter (-.1 WAR), and would add a well-respected veteran to a clubhouse full of players in their early to mid twenties. Even if you ignore the veteran presence part, Teixeira’s production was worth more than $11 million, which is what they would take on in this trade, and there aren’t many first basemen available who are even average players. The timing on the deal also works out because A.J. Reed hit 34 home runs between high A and AA as a first baseman, meaning they could have Teixeira for one season and then transition into Reed for 2017. Romine is just a throw in to give Houston a little more compensation for taking on $11 million. He had a reputation as a good defensive catcher throughout the minors, but the Yankees tried to showcase his skills in the majors and inadvertently proved that he can’t hit major league pitching. The Astros don’t have a good answer at catcher right now, so he would give them someone to throw into the mix during the spring and hope he can become a good defensive backup catcher. If not, they can send him to the minors or cut with no penalty. In other words, the trade from the Astros point of view is adding a huge upgrade in going from Carter to Teixeira while giving up a relief pitcher.
From the Yankees point of view, they have two options at first base: play Teixeira and start Greg Bird in AAA so he can get some playing time and not just wait the year out on the bench, or trade Teixeira and play Bird. In saying they should opt for the latter I am not implying that Bird is better than Teixeira right now, but there is a chance that he might be. Although he did play really well last year, Teixeira is one year removed from an abysmal 2014 in which his WAR stood at 1.0. I don’t think he will be that bad, but I am guessing that he will be somewhere in between 2014 Teixeira and 2015 Teixeira. Last year he had 143 weighted runs created plus. The last time he had topped 130 was in 2009 when he had 142. Last year his weighted on base average was .381. The last time he was over .365 was 2010 when he had a .369 wOBA. Teixeira’s numbers will come back down, but by how much? What if he is closer to 2 wins above replacement than he is 3? That isn’t a bad number, but Bird was at .9 in less than a third of the season last year. Bird's defense could use some work, but Teixeira hasn’t had a positive DWAR since 2012. All of this is to say that there is a case to be made for why Bird might be a better everyday player than Teixeira in 2016. We do need to be careful when evaluating a small sample size, but with Bird’s patience, power (44.8% of his balls were classified as “hard hit” per Fangraphs), and ability to hit to all fields, I don’t believe that his numbers will come down significantly (if at all) next year. Bird's minor league track record doesn’t suggest he’ll hit 30 homers yet, but it does indicate that his walk rate (and therefore OBP) might increase next season, when it was already at a solid .343.
Finally, we get to the issue of Teixeira’s health. He is unlikely to play the whole year given his injury history, and if the Yankees are worried about that then they should get something for him before the injury forces Bird to play anyway. This is also the reason the Yankees have to give up so much money in the trade; Houston won’t pay too much for an injury-plagued player for one year. That being said, he is a far cry from chump change, which is why the Yankees should expect a good reliever in return. They should ask for Will Harris, but that is unlikely to happen, so I went with Josh Fields. Fields is not your typical relief pitcher. Despite having only pitched three seasons, he is 30 years old, and his ERA would indicate that he is nothing special. However, in the past two seasons, he has averaged over 11 strikeouts per nine innings and kept his walk rate around 3 per nine innings. Add in the fact that he has given up four home runs in his past 105 innings (that will rise a bit), and it can be reasonably concluded that he has far outpitched his ERA. His FIP backs this up, as it sat at an incredible 2.19 in 2015. Fields has a three pitch mix that includes a 94 mph fastball and a changeup that is 13 mph slower. He also mixes in a knuckle curve to give him a breaking pitch when necessary. The Yankees have found a lot of success in recent years targeting relief pitchers with “bad luck” in prior years, and Fields might be another gem that just doesn’t have the traditional statistics to back it up.
3. Trade Carlos Beltran along with $10 million to the Indians for Giovanni Soto
Soto is not someone that the Yankees would be really excited to get, as this trade is much more about clearing a roster space than it is about who they get in return (although they should give Soto a shot). With Rodriguez penciled in at the DH slot, Beltran becomes more of a problem for the Yankees than a good bat to have on the team. He posted a -2.0 DWAR last year and managed to eke out a .9 total WAR due to his improved offensive production. Like Teixeira, though, he was far worse in 2014 and there is no guarantee that he is more likely to repeat his 2015 performance than regress to what he did a year ago. He is due $15 million, so the Indians would not have to take on much risk here as Beltran would be filling their DH slot. The idea here is that they could preserve his bat a bit more by not playing him in the field, and unless they find an alternative first baseman (unlikely given the options), Carlos Santana will be playing the field, which leaves the DH vacant.
Soto is someone that the Indians were never all that high on after they got him for Jhonny Peralta a while ago. He’s had some decent and some subpar seasons in the minors, having a few injuries along the way. He began as a starter, but ultimately the Indians felt that he was best suited for a relief role. Throughout his minor league career, he averaged around eight strikeouts per nine innings, and struggled with control issues at times. That being said, his strikeout rate increased when he was sent to the bullpen, and he has another really good skill: he doesn’t give up home runs. As a starter, he averaged a home run about every twelve innings, but as a reliever that number has plummeted to just 3 in 106 innings. He has only pitched three and one-third major league innings, and he survives mostly off of junk, but the Indians don’t appear to have him in their plans. The Yankees could take a shot on him and see what he could add as a middle reliever. If not, they cut him and just be glad that they have vacated Beltran’s spot. As for the Indians, they can cut Beltran at any time because of the low salary that they would owe him, making this a low risk move that might give them some power towards the middle-to-bottom of the order.
4. Sign Kyle Blanks to a one-year deal
The Yankees’ struggles against left-handed pitching were well documented towards the end of last season, which is why they should go after Kyle Blanks. In addition to angering every Yankee fan on the planet (who reads this) by saying that the Yankees should get rid of Teixeira and Beltran for a pair of relievers and sign a career backup outfielder and first baseman to replace them, I am completely serious. Despite a strong start to the 2015 season before an injury ended his season prematurely, Blanks was assigned to Triple-A after the season. He refused this assignment, resulting in his current free agency. He is below average defensively, but he is no worse than Chris Young was on that end, maybe a little better, and he would essentially be taking Young’s role. The only difference is that he wouldn’t have to step in when Beltran gets hurt because Carlos is in Cleveland.
Over the past three seasons, Blanks has hit 10 home runs in 160 at bats with 18 walks, leading to a .294/.370/.519 slash line against left-handers. In case you were wondering, Young has 15 homers in 375 at bats with 57 walks and a .245/.344/.443 slash line against southpaws over the same time frame. Blanks clearly hits left-handed pitchers much better than Young does, and the Yankees were willing to play Young over Ellsbury against Dallas Kuechel in the wild card game because of his success against lefties. Over the past two years, Blanks has been limited to 44 games, but he has a combined .8 WAR over that time frame. Between Bird, Ellsbury, and Gardner, the Yankees have three left-handed hitters who have better numbers against right handers that Blanks could spell when they face a southpaw. Or, if you’re as crazy as I am, you believe that there is a fourth …
5. Promote Slade Heathcott and platoon him with Kyle Banks in right field
The days when the Yankees believed Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Tyler Austin would be their outfield of the future are over, but Heathcott showed that the Yankees may be rewarded for sticking it out with him last year. Heathcott had solid minor league numbers and could never stay on the field, but did very well in the Arizona Fall League a few years ago. He is a good fielder, so the Yankees can at least rely on the fact that they will be putting someone out there who can get to the ball a lot quicker than Beltran or Young could last year. Besides, I think it’s worth seeing what he has at the plate. His platoon splits in the minors don’t show that he is bad against-left handed pitchers, just that his power isn’t there (similar to Gardner). If that’s the case then he may see more lefties while Bird sits for Banks sometimes, but Banks is a bit more comfortable in right than he is at first. Using that nugget, let’s assume that Heathcott will be in a platoon. His .421 average in 17 games last year is not indicative of how high his ceiling is, but if he plays mostly against right handed pitchers he could get up near .270 on the year, although a bit under .260 is more likely. He can get to double digit home runs, but don’t expect much more than 10 on the season from him.
The real gamble is not with Heathcott, but with Aaron Judge. Judge is supposed to be a big power hitting right fielder that the Yankees believe will be ready for the majors sometime next year. He raked through AA, but his first stint in AAA didn’t go so well. I think it would be best for him to spend most of the year in the minors and maybe make an appearance as a September call up. Nevertheless, if Heathcott struggles, then Judge may get the call prematurely. The Yankees would have other options in Ben Gamel, Jake Cave, and Mason Williams that they could try in the short term, but Heathcott is the only one with the potential to carry a full time job next year. If he doesn’t, the Yankees will be treading water until Judge is ready. So long as they keep trying other options it might work out, but I would really worry about Judge coming to the big leagues before he is ready to face big league pitching. I think Heathcott can perform well enough if given the job, but are the Yankees willing to take that chance?
6. Platoon Dustin Ackley and Robert Refsnyder
Many Yankee fans are clamoring for Refsnyder right away, but I don’t think that there is any need to hand him the full time job just yet. For starters, he needs to work on his defense a bit more before Joe Girardi will be comfortable with him manning second base every day. Secondly, the Yankees also have a player who has been quietly productive during his short career in Dustin Ackley. Ackley’s offensive production has fluctuated a bit in his career, but he has double digit homers in three of his past four seasons. He was also a very good fielder in his first two seasons with Seattle, posting 1.3 and 1.4 DWAR in those two years. After that, Seattle transitioned him to the outfield because they just couldn’t resist a double play combination of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin. In 2013, he split time between second base and center field, struggling in center before playing exclusively left field in 2014, and playing just above average defense. In 2015, he was asked to play all over the place, including second base again, and he didn’t do well at any position. If necessary, they can use him as a fifth outfielder, but I think that Ackley can return to the really good fielder he was during the first two seasons of his career with a little more time to get reacquainted with the position. He also doesn’t strike out much, and has respectable numbers against right handed pitchers over the last three years. As for Refsnyder, I’m not sure that a platoon will help his offensive numbers much, but he’s just not ready to play second base everyday. The Yankees will, however, want his bat on the major league roster, as he has a tendency to make good contact.
7. Sign Hisashi Iwakuma to a 3-year deal. If that fails, sign Mike Leake to a 5-year deal.
The Yankees won’t get any help from their farm system in fixing their rotation for 2015 so they will either have to trade for a pitcher or dip into free agency. Another reason for trading Teixeira and Beltran is that they can used that $16 million they just saved to sign either Iwakuma or Leake. I think Iwakuma is the better pitcher and fit, but I think that there is another team that should outbid the Yankees for him (more on them later). In that case, Leake would be a pretty good consolation prize, as he would shore up the middle of the rotation and wouldn’t cost a fortune to do so.
Since Iwakuma should be plan A, let’s start with him. The only negatives that I can see with Iwakuma are that he is 34 and he has missed time with injuries. His age is the reason for a three-year deal, but he showed no signs of slippage last year, and he has a lot of movement on his pitches which should not go away when his speed decreases. As for the injuries, he has missed time due to a finger injury and a strained lat. In other words, no reason to panic here. Throughout his career he has maintained a strikeout rate around seven per nine, and his walk rate is microscopic. He has surrendered 127 walks in 653.2 innings throughout his career. Home runs are a concern, as he does give up a high number of those. On the flip side, with more ground balls than fly balls, he would be getting many batters to hit the ball right to an infield that wouldn’t let many balls through. Pitching behind this defense might mitigate the effect of those home runs, and he would continue to eat innings. He has averaged over six innings per start in each of the past three years, topping out at 219.2 innings pitched in 2013. The strength of the Yankees’ pitching staff is their bullpen, and if they want to make sure it isn’t overworked, they need to find a pitcher who can go six innings every time he’s handed the ball. Iwakuma can get that done and be more effective than most players available who fit that bill. I originally thought he might be too expensive, but reports are that he might max out around a 3 year, $45 million deal. Given the market for starting pitchers, I think that is less than what he should earn, and the Yankees would be wise to go up to $51 million. There is still that matter of the other team that I will name later that should go higher, so now let’s talk about the Yankees’ plan B.
Hidden in Cincinnati, Mike Leake has been one of the most consistent pitchers over the past few seasons:
2013: 192.1 IP, 3.37 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 48 BB
2014: 214,1 IP, 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 50 BB
2015: 192.0 IP, 3.70 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 49 BB
Normally for a pitcher of this caliber you would expect a four-year deal, but Leake is only 27 years old. That is three years younger than most of his peers hitting the free agent market, meaning that Leake is likely to keep up this pace for a few more years than other available pitchers are. He shouldn’t cost too much in AAV, probably a bit less that Iwakuma should, but as you can see from those numbers, Leake also doesn’t walk batters and will preserve the bullpen. I like Iwakuma a bit more because his stuff has more movement to it and their ground ball rates and home run rates are roughly equal. Iwakuma’s movement has led to more strikeouts (Leake is around six per nine), and it also looks a bit tougher to hit well on a regular basis, with his sinker having a sharp cut down and in to right handed batters. That being said, the Yankees should be very happy to come away with Mike Leake, as he does many of the things that Iwakuma does, just with fewer strikeouts. I suppose plan C if neither Iwakuma nor Leake signs with the Yankees would be to target some pitcher who isn’t all that good but will be able to pitch a lot of innings this year. In theory, that could have been CC Sabathia, but I am leaving him out of this discussion because of what I don’t know surrounding his alcohol situation. The point really is that Ivan Nova can’t be trusted to start the season. He was rushed back (strangely) from Tommy John and still needs more time to come all the way back. If he does end up becoming a good pitcher again, I don’t think it will be in the beginning of the year and the Yankees can’t afford to take the chance that he might not ever be the Nova of 2013 again.
Bonus: Sabermetric Battle
I won’t do this for all teams, but it is worth noting that the Yankees are in a prime position to pull off something that sabermetricians have been waiting for someone to do: have a super reliever. Closers get all of the credit, but what about the guy that kept it close in the fifth, sixth, or seventh to make sure they still had the lead? Sabermetricians have argued that a pitcher would help his team much more if, instead of being a closer, he came into the game as early as necessary in a close game. If the starter is yanked after five with a one run lead, this “super reliever” would come in and nail down the sixth, hoping that the offense could give the next, not as good reliever some breathing room. The Yankees have a stud closer in Andrew Miller, so why not make Dellin Betances a super reliever? He has shown he can handle a heavy workload and will challenge the game’s best hitters (and usually win), so either put him in for all those close games early or have him face the heart of the lineup, whenever it comes around. Betances is good enough that he can pitch against a team’s 3-4-5 hitters and not consistently get burned, so have him go head-to-head with the game’s best and leave the bottom of the order to the relievers who will struggle against the heart of the order. Either way, Betances would be much more valuable as some kind of a super reliever than as a setup man, and because people tend to get worried when the closer isn’t set, the Yankees could still keep Miller there and let Betances be their bullpen warrior. They won’t do it, but it is fun to think about what could happen if Girardi took this approach.
The Final Team and Projections
Here is the final team and the projections that I have put in for WAR. I looked at Baseball Reference’s and Fangraphs’ projections for many of them just to get a bit of an idea, but these are mostly where I think a player will end up. I put in something briefly explaining each one, but the most important thing to note is that WAR usually doesn’t change too much from year to year, and last year’s WAR is a better indicator of next year’s WAR than, say, the average of the past three years.
Brian McCann (2.1 WAR) – Down from 2.7 because he’ll play less games as they try to keep him from tiring.
John Ryan Murphy (.7) – Increases slightly due to more time spelling McCann.
Greg Bird (2.5) – A bit less than his full year projection from 2015 as I am accounting a little bit for the small sample size.
Dustin Ackley (1.3) – Platoon will limit his individual WAR, but his good defense returns as he puts up a fine season.
Rob Refsnyder (.8) – Defensive limitations will cap his WAR despite offensive output.
Chase Headley (1.8) – Fielding and walk rate should go back to career norms.
Didi Gregorius (2.6) – His average will drop, but his glove won’t change.
Brendan Ryan (.3) – Battled injuries all year and his incredible defense should return with his health as he backs up the left side of the infield.
Brett Gardner (3.5) – Health may have affected his fielding, but not much changes here.
Jacoby Ellsbury (2.8) – Healthy now and can steal bases, but don’t expect power to return.
Slade Heathcott (1.4) – Good fielder who may hit .260.
Kyle Blanks (1.1) – Will mash lefties in a platoon.
Alex Rodriguez (.8) – In 28 innings in the field, A-Rod managed to have a -1.4 DWAR last year. Honestly, I’m just impressed. He’ll be alright as a pure DH, but don’t count on 33 homers.
Masahiro Tanaka (4.0) – Assuming no health problems.
Luis Severino (2.7) – Could be underselling this one, as he had 2.0 WAR in 11 starts.
Nathan Eovaldi (2.6) – He should be giving up less hits this year.
Michael Pineda (2.9) – His FIP was 3.34 and his xFIP was 2.95. He doesn’t walk batters and his numbers should be better next year.
Hisashi Iwakuma (2.8) – Reasonable expectation for him given a full season.
Or Mike Leake (2.1) – Low walk rate should help him continue to succeed.
Andrew Miller (2.0) – About the same as the last two seasons.
Dellin Betances (3.2) – I expect his workload to decrease just because they want to be careful with him, but super reliever Dellin Betances could reach 4.5 WAR.
Justin Wilson (1.7) – He’ll have the seventh inning job, and he improved his K/BB ratio last year.
Adam Warren (1.1) – He’ll sometimes be a middle reliever, long reliever, or emergency starter, but his strikeout rate is much better in the bullpen.
Josh Fields (1.0) – His FIP was really good and he strikes out over 11 per nine.
Giovanni Soto (.5) – The guy throws six different pitches.
7th spot competition: Chasen Shreve, Jacob Lindgren, Nick Rumbelow, Branden Pinder, Nick Goody (0) – The job would be Shreve’s to lose, but I think he’ll struggle this year given that his ERA hasn’t caught up to his high walk rate. The Yankees would then call up and send down relievers to fill this spot, and they ultimately will end up cancelling each other out. Lindgren has the most talent, but I think they will be careful with him given his big injury last year, so he may stay in the minors until September.
Here are the total WAR numbers given my projections (which undoubtedly will look stupid by year’s end):
On the offensive side, the only one I could see really outperforming my expectations would be Bird. If he works on his defense just enough, that might be enough to push that number up a full win (his DWAR was -.6 last year). Outside of those players and super reliever Betances, the Yankees would have to bet on this team being better at year’s end than it is now. One of the reasons the Mets were able to make the World Series despite not having that good a team WAR was that Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard didn’t play the full year, but were key parts to their playoff run. Their WAR’s were not as high as their level of play indicated because they just didn’t have a whole year’s worth of numbers to factor into the equation. For the Yankees, that could be Aaron Judge and Luis Severino. I don’t think Judge should play in the majors before September, but if he’s ready by then, he could be a good source of power in the playoffs. It is also possible (maybe even likely) that Severino will be a better pitcher in September and October than he will be in April and May. Just having more games under his belt will help him a lot. The Yankees will be in the playoffs next year with these moves, but how far away are they from really competing for a ring?
All statistics used were found on Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, or ESPN.