James Kaprielian entered this season as the odds-on favorite to be the first pitcher in his draft class to hit the major leagues. After throwing in the low-90s in college, he was clocking at 99 in his first few starts. For a guy with excellent secondary stuff, a reputation for knowing how to pitch and plus control, that was a big deal. Then, disaster struck. He went down with an elbow injury after four starts, and did not return during the regular season.
However, all is not lost. Kaprielian was added to the Arizona Fall League roster. Absent the injury, this would be a surprise. The AzFL is a highly-competitive, offense-first league for advanced prospects. Other Yankees in Arizona right now include Greg Bird, Tyler Wade, Miguel Andujar, Dillon Tate and Gleybar Torres. (Also, Tim Tebow) It says something that the Yankees were confident enough to send Kaprielian, with essentially zero professional experience, to such an advanced pitcher-eating league.
The better news: he's healthy and throwing in the mid-90s again. The elbow injury appears to be healed. He has 12 strikeouts and 2 walks in 9 1/3 innings. If you watch the above video, you'll hear scouts whispering about how good he looks. I'm no mechanics expert, but his delivery looks beautifully simple.
If Kaprielian is indeed healthy, he instantly changes the farm system outlook. If he is indeed throwing in the mid-to-high-90s, he has top-of-the-rotation potential. The Yankees have badly needed to rebuild their minor league pitching pipeline in recent years. There are a lot of flaws in the current crop of young Yankee pitchers: Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Greene, Luis Cessa, Dillon Tate, Justus Sheffield, Dietrich Enns, Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, Domingo Acevedo. A healthy Kaprielian is better than any of them, and could hit the majors in late 2017 if everything goes right.
The big challenge will be bringing his innings up. I can't imagine they will want to pitch him more than ~130 innings next season. That means a potential 2018 rookie season will still take place under a harsh innings cap.
I don't have much to say other than this is a joy to watch. If you missed this on the broadcast last night, here it is. An unscripted conversation between three of the best hitters in major league history:
At this point, we've all probably heard about (or watched) Fox's new show Pitch. The show follows Ginny Baker, a fictional character who becomes the first woman ever to play major league baseball. The show feels so real, and the world's reaction to a woman playing in the highest level of professional sports feels so authentic, that I've had the image of a real life Ginny Baker in my head for weeks now.
After some thought, I think a real life Ginny Baker is very possible. In fact, I think MLB can make it happen if it wants to. MLB has every incentive to do so. It is difficult to imagine a woman playing in the NHL, NFL, or NBA. Those sports are so purely physical that biological differences make a huge difference. It could happen, but the pioneering women would have to be extraordinary, even compared to professional athletes.*
Baseball, on the other hand, leaves open some room for women. The fictional Ginny Baker only throws about 86 mph, but supposedly throws a number of other pitches, including a screwball. But really, the knuckleball is where this is at. There's no biological limitation preventing a woman from throwing Tim Wakefield's 71mph fastball and 60 mph knuckleball.
Indeed, we've come close before. Ila Borders was a woman who played high-level independent league baseball in the 1990s. In an excellent interview with Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast, Borders described the Northern League as "High-A pitching, Double-A hitting." It took her some time to settle in, but she put up a 3.63 ERA in her age-24 season. Teams considered her for a minor league contract, but ultimately decided that there would be "too much media coverage." Nice job there, baseball. No sport ever wanted intense media interest.
Here's the important thing to remember: 750 players are on major league rosters. If a women can be the 750th best baseball player in the world, she will deserve a spot in the bigs. Can this happen? I submit two cases to you: Katie Ledecky and Jessie Graff.
Katie Ledecky, who is just 19 years old, was the best athlete in women's swimming at the Olympics this summer. She won four gold medals and one silver medal. While men and women compete in separate events, their times are directly comparable. 200m in a pool is 200m in a pool. Ledecky completed the 200m freestyle in 1 minute, 53.73 seconds. That time was better than 2 of the 48 Olympic men who competed in the qualifying round. Thus, Ledecky can claim to be the 45 best 200m swimmer in the world. The 45th best pitcher in the world last year by fWAR was Bartolo Colon, who earned 3 fWAR for the Mets.
Jessie Graff is another extraordinary case. She competes on American Ninja Warrior, an obstacle course show that airs on NBC over the summer. It is extraordinary to watch the athletes compete on ANW. They are asked to perform grueling, difficult feats of strength, endurance, agility, and balance. Woman and men compete on the exact same obstacle course. For years, women failed to make it over their signature early-round obstacle, the 15-foot warped wall. Then, an athlete named Kacy Catanazaro made it over the wall in 2014. A number of women were inspired by Catanazaro and trained for the next season. 40% more women entered the competition in 2016. Many more women made it over the warped wall, and Graff was the best of them.
Graff ultimately placed 5th overall in the competition. Check out her second to last run:
That's pretty darn dominant. I have no doubt that many more women will enter the competition next year, and more will emerge as legitimate contenders. It's inspiring to watch.
How does MLB make it happen? First, they can scout professional women's leagues abroad. The best women's baseball league is probably in Japan. My bet is that someone from that league is signed to be the first woman to play in an affiliated men's league. It is unlikely that the first woman who plays in the minors will make the majors (most men don't come close), but someone has to go first.
I bet women's baseball catches on in the U.S. as well. Currently, girls are segregated into women's sports in most local school systems. This segregation may benefit many girls, who just want to play the sports they love, but it isn't sustainable for the best athletes. As gender norms become more progressive, these barriers will break down. The best girls will play baseball alongside the best boys, not softball. The U.S. NCAA system will incorporate many of these athletes into their teams, and the best will emerge as major league prospects.
All MLB needs to do is find these talented actors and draft them. The incentives are there: I completely buy the intense interest and reaction to Ginny Baker. MLB needs more eyeballs on their games, and this is how it happens. The first team to call up a female major league baseball player will be rewarded.
* One exception: I could see a goaltender in the NHL. That would be pretty cool (other than size, I don't see any reason physical strength should be a limitation here. Lots of woman play high-level hockey in the NCAA and Canadian leagues, and the NHL has both strong development leagues and relationships with European professional leagues, so all it would take is for someone to give an exceptional woman a shot in the minors or in the Swiss/German/Swedish/Czech/etc leagues.
The Yankee payroll is starting to emerge from half a decade of mostly-wasted space. Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and late-career Derek Jeter returned very little from 2012-2016, while taking up a tremendous amount of payroll space. While two will still receive paychecks in 2017, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Yankees will return to being the spending force in the American League soon.
Below, I've posted a spreadsheet of the current Yankee payroll obligations. I included arbitration estimates for arb-eligible players, and excluded players off the 40-man or that I expect to be non-tendered (Eovaldi). Some of the league minimum players might get replaced on the roster by April, but they will likely be replaced with similar salaries.
In 2018, the Yankees have just $95 million in obligations, even assuming Masahiro Tanaka does not opt out. Once McCann, Headley, and Gardner come off the payroll in 2019, that becomes $57 million, just in time for the mega free agent class. The Yankees could conceivably sign three or four $30m+ free agents and still maintain a payroll inside their historical norms.
The Yankees 2016 season started off with a lamentable thud in more ways than one. Greg Bird's season ended before it really began, as the team announced that a torn labrum would keep him out for the entirety of 2016 on February 1st. Bryan Mitchell injured his toe about six weeks later, and would not return until August. James Kaprielian was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury in April, and would not pitch for the remainder of the season. In short order their first baseman of the present and future, their sixth starter, and their top pitching prospect went down with serious injuries. And what seems like a dozen minor leaguers and shuttle relievers suffered some sort of season-ending injury during Spring Training.
The teams left in the playoffs have had less injury woes than the Yankees, so their odds on making it through to the playoffs didn’t come as a complete shock. Some of the best sites were predicting that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs earlier in the season, but it’s still somewhat tough to take.
So it goes.
Six months later, though, things are looking up. The Yankees have top prospects throughout the minor leagues, and are slated to shed upwards of $40 MM as compared to Opening Day 2016 (I'm factoring in potential arbitration raises, and my back of the napkin math could be off). And, most importantly, Bird and Kaprielian are back.
The Arizona Fall League began just last week, yet it is difficult to curtail the excitement therein. Bird is batting .308/.357/.615, with 4 2B in 13 at-bats. Trade deadline acquisition (and top-50ish prospect) Gleyber Torres is batting .250/.308/.583, with 1 2B and 1 HR in 12 at-bats. And the oft-overlooked Miguel Andujar my well be the best of all, batting .400/.455/.600, with 1 3B in 10 at-bats. The sample sizes are small, to be sure - but there are some glowing reports out there already.
Most important, however, is the fact that Kaprielian is back. He made his AzFL debut on Wednesday, October 12, and he was nothing short of brilliant. Kaprielian struck out 6 in 3.0 IP, throwing 40 pitches and allowing just one hit. And, as per BA's Josh Norris, his stuff is right where it left off this Spring - "his fastball sat comfortably between 94-96 mph and he worked in all three of his offspeed pitches: a slider and changeup in the high-80s, and a curveball in the low-80s."
These stats will change quite a bit (all are current as of noon on Monday), but these four players provide some insight as to what the next great Yankees team could look like - a slugging first baseman, a two-way shortstop, a solid third baseman, and a top of the rotation starter is a hell of a foundation to build upon.
Happy Monday, ladies and gentlemen!
At some point this week, some combination of Scott, E.J., and I will be recording Episode 57 of the It's About the Yankees (Stupid) Podcast. We'll have a discussion about the merits of the different incarnations of Wins Above Replacement, and continue our overview of the team's organization depth. However, we would also like to field some questions from you - the readers and listeners.
If you would like to become internet famous and have your question read and answered, feel free to:
- Post it just below this, in the comments.
- Send it to me on Twitter, @DomenicLanza.
- E-mail it to us at email@example.com.
We look forward to hearing from you.
1. The stunning-for-NY boredom of consistent mediocrity. I think of the 2010s Yankees as a high-drama team: repeated wild card runs; Jeter’s and Rivera’s final years; A-Rod’s everything; and the occasional brilliance-before-flameout of so many young starters (Nova, Hughes, Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino). But their 2013-16 results – win totals of 85, 84, 87, and 84 – have been just so stagnant. And those teams weren’t even that good: their average annual run differential has been just +9, so they’ve really been, on average, only an 82-win team. That’s not only boring; it’s also stunningly disappointing for a team that spent the prior 17 years so consistently on top.
2. My 80s/early-90s PTSD. I vaguely remember the Yankees’ great 1978 and 1981 teams, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I was old enough to follow baseball more seriously than with “yay!”/“boo!” That was a sad time to start following the Yankees. Between their 1981 World Series and the 1994 team that was great but lacked a post-season due to a strike, the 1982-1993 Yankees averaged 82.8 wins, earning no post-season play. Steinbrenner built those teams by acquiring already-high-performers in their late-20s to mid-30s; a few were long-term successes (Winfield, Henderson, Boggs), but more had just 1-2 good years left (Jesse Barfield, Danny Tartabull, Don Baylor, Scott Sanderson, Rick Rhoden…), or – all too often – had zero left in the tank (Cecil Fielder, Omar Moreno, Mike Witt, Steve Trout, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint…). With so many newly acquired stars so quickly declining, the Yankees kept needing to scrounge up more aging stars, and then those guys would decline too. The team finally stopped keeping up with that treadmill, suffering sub-.500 records from 1989 to 1992. So when I see a 2013-16 team averaging 85 wins with a true quality of probably 82 wins, a mild PTSD flares up, and I hope we’re not in for years of 80something-win mediocrity followed by dropping below .500.
3. Little hope for 2017, but more long-run hope. I’m trying to remind and convince myself to get over my '80s PTSD and be more optimistic about the team the Yankees transformed into in late 2016. They beefed up the farm system by dumping several of their stars; they released (A-Rod) or substantially benched (McCann) aging stars to make room for ripe prospects; and Cashman’s post-season post-mortem declared an unwillingness to fill the team’s (many) holes by trading prospects. The 80s vintage move would be multi-year deals for “home run champ Mark Trumbo” (age 31) and “proven vet C.J. Wilson” (age 35) -- or, worse, a trade of several top prospects for some starter just a tick better than Wilson. I feel odd cheering for the 2017 to be left weak and hole-riddled. But thanks to Cashman’s unwillingness to sell off future stars and future budget for a few more wins in 2017, I’m heartened that we’re not in for a repeat of the 80s. The 2017 team won’t be a winner, but it could be tons of fun to watch -- because it’ll be the team that sorts out which youngsters really have the chops to be a part of the next winning Yankee team in 2018 or 2019.