Let’s take a few news stories from the past few days and dive deeper into them:
— Greg Bird elected free agency rather than an outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Bird turned out to be Nick Johnson 2.0 for the Yankees — a lefty-hitting first baseman with power and patience who showed initial promise but just could not stay off the injured list.
Johnson never completely solved the health issue. But he did stay fit enough in 2005-06 — his age-26/27 seasons — to play in 278 games with a .919 OPS and 8.6 Wins Above Replacement.
Bird will be entering his age-27 season in 2020. He has appeared in 140 games over the past four seasons, since his terrific 2015 debut, hitting just .194. Yet, as recently as the 2017 ALCS, the Astros’ scouting report was to work him as carefully as anyone in the lineup. The Yankees drew just 19 walks in those seven games and Bird had eight of them.
Perhaps he never will solve especially his foot problems and stay healthy. But at least a half-dozen teams — five in the AL — should be considering if there is a Nick Johnson upside year or two here at a pittance. It will be interesting to see if Bird can even secure a major league contract rather than a minor league deal with a spring training invite and an avenue to make a 26-man roster if he has a strong spring — and Bird became a master or the teasing strong spring for the Yankees, including last March, which allowed him to open the 2019 season at first base with Luke Voit at DH.
The rebuilding Orioles, Tigers and Royals have at-bats at first base or DH to offer Bird, and clubs like that should be taking small gambles on players with potential upside.
The White Sox — even with the signing of switch-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal — need more lefty diversification and have first base or DH at-bats to share with Jose Abreu.
The Angels tried last year to mix in the lefty swinging Justin Bour at first base/DH with Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani. Bour performed miserably. Angels GM Billy Eppler was the Yankees assistant GM when the team drafted and developed Bird.
Also, Gary Denbo, a significant voice in the Marlins’ day-to-day operations, helped raise Bird in the Yankees’ minor league system and, like Eppler, was a fan of the player.
— The Padres signed Drew Pomeranz for four years at $36 million. That is $9 million a year on average through 2023 for a lefty who as recently as October 2018 was viewed by the Red Sox as so unreliable (and perhaps unhealthy) that they sent Nathan Eovaldi out for a seventh inning of relief in World Series Game 3 rather than use Pomeranz. And through July 31 last season, Pomeranz was mainly a failed starter with the Giants (5.68 ERA).
But he was traded to the Brewers, and in 25 regular season appearances (24 in relief) and one wild-card game, he was essentially a Josh
Hader clone — an overpowering southpaw out of the bullpen. He struck out 47 of 106 batters faced. And this is how you get the first relief contract of more than three years since Aroldis Chapman/Kenley Jansen after the 2016 season.
Because teams no longer pay big for track record. This is about projection of future excellence, even if the evidence is thin. The excellence of Eovaldi and Joe Kelly in the 2018 postseason was enough to convince the Red Sox and Dodgers, respectively, that they had harnessed ample talent and were worth big investments despite sketchy histories.
Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler had somewhat similar 2019 campaigns, both in their age-29 season, and Bumgarner — by far — is the more accomplished pitcher. Yet, the belief that Wheeler has better stuff and more untapped upside means Wheeler is looking at a considerably larger payday in this free agent class.
Pomeranz did enough for two months as a Brewer to dismiss other elements of his recent past. Plus, for Milwaukee in the regular season, he held righties to a .172 average and lefties to .182. Next season a new rule is likely to force a reliever to face at least three battres unless he is finishing an inning. That will make lefties who can retire both sides of the plate effectively even more valuable.
— The Orioles placed Jonathan Villar on outright waivers. Baltimore was terrible in 2019. But Villar was not. He was arguably the the O’s best player, appearing in all 162 games with 24 homers and 40 steals. He is a switch-hitter who can play a myriad of positions.
Yet, his appearance on outright waivers suggests Baltimore tried to trade the 28-year-old and no team wanted him at the $10 million-ish-plus it is likely going to cost for Villar, who is arbitration eligible for the last time. Baltimore, in a total rebuild, clearly does not see the value of paying that much either for a player who will be a free agent after the 2020 season. Monday is the deadline to tender players contracts for the 2020 season, and Baltimore made this move because it is not going to tender Villar.
The Orioles can try to work out a lower deal or Villar can become a free agent. If free, I have recommended previously Villar as a player who the Yankees should consider to work jointly with Gleyber Torres at shortstop if Didi Gregorius is indeed not coming back. Villar’s athleticism and lefty bat would help in areas the Yankees need. But Vilar also is known as an over-aggressive player with a penchant for on-field mistakes. And the Yankees may not want that kind of portfolio.
For this role, though, one other possibility could be Orlando Arica. The Brewers made a multi-player trade Wednesday with the Padres in which they obtained Luis Urias to be their shortstop. That indicates they have run out of patience with Arcia, whose defense has been fine, but whose offense has been poor. Arcia also faces a non-tender Monday. It was not long ago that Arcia was among the majors’ best prospects — pretty much a consensus top 10 before the 2016 season.
Could the Yankees take a gamble that they can unlock his offense as they have done with other talented players who failed to blossom elsewhere such as Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela?
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