jeff passan

The Yankees turned down a blockbuster trade 2 years ago, and it could position them perfectly in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes

(Alex Brandon/AP)
The New York Yankees have been one of the biggest surprises of the young MLB season.

At 27-17, they lead the AL East and sit second overall in the American League, led by an explosive offense and some stingy pitching.

The Yankees have historically been known for outspending other teams to get the best players, relying on their history and deep pockets to attract talent.

This year’s team, however, is more notable for the contributions of young prospects and role players that the team has groomed while going through a rebuild. The future looks bright enough as it is with players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez on board, but as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan points out, the Yankees may be the most perfectly positioned team in all of baseball going forward — in part because they decided to keep said prospects.

According to Passan, in 2015, the Yankees turned down a blockbuster trade offer from the Braves that included Judge, Sanchez, and pitcher Luis Severino for players like Jason Heyward, Melvin Upton Jr., and more. As a result, the Yankees not only have one of the most promising cores in baseball — they’ll also have the money to go after big names like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in two years.

From Passan:

“The Yankees’ patience in building the Aaron Judge-Gary Sanchez-Luis Severino core should be applauded. A few years ago, after they’d committed to going young, the Yankees received a whopper of a proposition from the Braves, who were about to start their rebuild: Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Melvin Upton Jr., Chris Johnson and David Carpenter for Judge, Sanchez, Severino and pitching prospects Ian Clarkin and Manny Banuelos. The Yankees said no. And because of it, nobody in baseball is in a better place to pounce in the 2019 offseason.”

With CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez’s contracts coming off the books next season, the Yankees will suddenly have a much lighter payroll. By 2019, they Yankees will only have $74 million in guaranteed contracts on the books. According to Passan, it could pave the way for the Yankees to spend big on Harper and Machado, giving them perhaps the scariest lineup in the league.

Of course, trades and signings will happen in between now and 2019, so the balance of the league could change by then. The Nationals and Orioles could trade Harper and Machado, respectively, if they fear they’ll leave. Both players are considered possibilities to stay with their respective teams, as well.

But Passan’s hypothetical is just one dream scenario. The Yankees, after years of uninspiring play, are better than expected with a future brighter than perhaps anybody else.

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Better, Slower, Safer Pitching

On April 30, the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard reached a milestone in the life cycle of a young superstar pitcher. He had already played in the World Series and received Cy Young Award votes. He had a catchy nickname—“Thor,” after his burly build and flowing hair—and a devoted following. That afternoon, feeling a pain in his side, Syndergaard left his start against the Washington Nationals. He had torn a muscle; he now occupies a spot on the 60-day disabled list.

An injury like Syndergaard’s, increasingly, is not the exception but the rule in baseball. Pitchers today throw harder than ever before (Thor’s hammer of a fastball clocks in at 98 miles an hour on average), at the cost of increased risk to every tendon, ligament, and muscle involved in their motions. “Shoulder problems, elbow problems, they’re all the same,” wrote Jeff Passan in 2016’s The Arm, a study of the modern rash of pitching injuries. “All the function of men pushing themselves to do something the body never intended it to do.”

The “something” Passan refers to is pitching in general, the inherently taxing act of throwing baseballs overhand, but the risks mount for harder, more muscular throwers. Among the most valuable commodities in contemporary baseball, then, are the rare aces who can shut down offenses without rearing back, who dominate but don’t strain themselves. These players remind seasoned fans of a bygone era, inducing weak ground balls instead of chasing today’s almighty strikeout. Chief among them right now is Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros, the best pitcher on the team with baseball’s best record. He throws soft, gets outs, and, for the most part, stays healthy. He is a throwback, but he solves a modern problem.

* * *

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On the mound, Keuchel is Syndergaard’s opposite. Where Syndergaard intimidates as he readies himself, staring hard at the batter, Keuchel seems happy to watch and wait. Instead of long hair, Keuchel has a Trappist’s beard, and when he finally delivers a pitch, he uses an unstressed delivery: lifted knee, quick step, left arm sailing over the top. Little League coaches could point to him as a model, and analysts swoon. “The guy has mastered his mechanics,” said the MLB Network analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz ahead of Keuchel’s start last Thursday against the New York Yankees.

Keuchel’s pitches, too, distinguish themselves. Today’s standard fastball is blistering but wire-straight, its objective not to duck under a bat but to blaze past it. Keuchel’s, by contrast, seems sentient. It goes slowly—88 miles per hour is plenty of zip, for him—but warps itself mid-flight. It darts left or right; it drops. Instead of swinging and missing, hitters often do something even more frustrating: knock the ball meekly into the grass, where a Houston infielder needs only to collect it and send it to first for the out.

To a certain type of baseball fan, Keuchel’s approach is commendable on an aesthetic basis alone. It exemplifies the difference between throwing, which any California or Texas teenager blessed with a big arm can do, and pitching. In that outing against the Yankees, Keuchel worked six innings and allowed only one run, lulling hitters with a blend of soft fastballs and even softer changeups. The Astros improved to 24-11, and Keuchel earned his sixth win of the season. “He was outstanding,” Smoltz said afterward, with a colleague’s admiration. It was not the sort of performance that would lead SportsCenter later in the evening, as Keuchel didn’t threaten the strikeout record or get close to a no-hitter. What set it apart was that it wasn’t mind-blowing, but sustainable.

An evolution like Keuchel’s is almost impossible to forecast.

This sustainability sits at the core of Keuchel’s worth to the Astros and, potentially, the sport. All pitchers carry risk, and Keuchel did miss the last month of his 2016 campaign with lingering shoulder inflammation, but even his injuries are old-fashioned. He needed nothing more than a winter’s rest—no surgery, no arduous rehab—to be ready for Spring Training. His Zen-like approach to pitching comes complete with a wellness component. The tears and strains that interrupt other careers for full seasons at a time have, to this point, avoided him.

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If pitchers like Keuchel are the what’s-old-is-new-again answer to ongoing injury woes, the question naturally follows: where to find them? This is where it gets tricky. Finding the next Keuchel may be as tough as hitting a homer off of the current one. The talents of someone like Syndergaard—or his high-octane New York teammate Matt Harvey, or the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, significant injury victims all—are obvious at the early stages of development. These players throw their tremendous fastballs in high school and college and get selected in the first round of the MLB draft.

Keuchel, on the other hand, emerged from the University of Arkansas as a mystery, or an afterthought. He was picked in the seventh round of the 2009 draft and spent his first two seasons as a Major Leaguer, in 2012 and 2013, as a below-average starter and middling reliever on lousy, rebuilding Houston teams. Only with experience did he learn to locate and sequence pitches, to tamper with the vision and balance and expectation of a batter. In his third year, Keuchel won a Gold Glove award for his ever-ready defense; this was a sign, maybe, of the considered nature of the dominance to come. In 2015, he won a Cy Young Award and led the Astros to their first postseason appearance since 2005. “I have steadily improved over the years,” he said at the time, a fittingly understated boast.

An evolution like Keuchel’s is almost impossible to forecast—much less so, at least, than the out-of-the-gate brilliance of pedigreed flamethrowers. An understanding of angle and a latent gift for the patterns of pitching are less visible in highlight reels than a 100 mile-per-hour heater. But those obvious gifts come with drawbacks, namely the likelihood that they’ll unthread the very bodies that produce them. Keuchel, meanwhile, is the cornerstone of a World Series contender. Where the next Keuchel comes from is of no concern to the Astros. They have theirs. He does his clever thing, and he’s a safe bet to keep doing it.

Read more from The Atlantic:

This article was originally published on The Atlantic.

While the genesis of the Angels’ binge will reveal itself in the coming days, what struck most was Moreno’s forceful renunciation of his abhorrence for high-dollar, long-term deals – or, as one official put it, “He’s such a hypocrite.” Rarely does hypocrisy cost so much. In dollars for Moreno. In reputation for Pujols. In tears for St. Louis. Pujols said, and repeated, that he wanted to be a “Cardinal for life.” The price of his word, it seems, is about $35 million – the difference between what the Cardinals offered and the Angels paid.
—  Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan
on the Angels and Marlins, baseball’s new big spenders
Pujols’ crossroads complicate Cardinals’ title

…On opening day this season, Landon threw out the first pitch, and Pujols had caught it. Inside the bowels of Busch Stadium, Pujols talked about the 2011 season, the madness it would entail with his upcoming free agency and the Cardinals’ uncertainty and the marriage of the two. And he said something with the sort of confidence and conviction only someone with his pedigree can.

“We’re going to win.”

 Win, huh?

 “Trust me.”

 Out came the smirk, the same one that showed itself Friday night as Pujols paraded around having won not just something but everything. His six weeks of struggle at the beginning of the season, and the Cardinals’ near-collapse in the middle of it, and all of the other things that could have spoiled his feeling were behind him. Albert Pujols was again a champion, accomplished, satisfied and fulfilled, this chapter of his story finished, the next waiting to be written.

Last few paragraphs of a very well-written article. I really recommend this read, Cardinals fan or not. Giants fans will be able to appreciate that Jeff Passan writes this in a way similar to Andrew Baggarly, as I was reminded of Baggs’ A Band of Misfits when reading this.

Think, too, about Albert Pujols. Go ahead. Run through every uniform in baseball. Or just limit it to the teams with the money or motivation to pursue him. Washington, San Francisco, Texas. No, no, no. Yankees? Lord please no. Red Sox? That might be even worse. Los Angeles? Ha. Toronto? Eh. Chicago? St. Louis might have its own Great Fire.
When the average team is spending almost double what the A’s will — and when the Los Angeles Angels are nearly three times as much and the Texas Rangers more than twice as much — Oakland almost is duty-bound to gamble on players like Cespedes. And because of his flaws, there is significant bust potential. One scout who tracked Cespedes throughout his Cuban league career worries about his troubles with breaking balls, something magnified during his short stint playing in the Dominican Winter League.
—  Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan
on why the Athletics needed to sign Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes 
The noise here – the noise will forever sear itself into the minds of those who heard it, because it’s not the sort of thing that can be captured and retransmitted in its full glory by technology. Photographs can encapsulate the moment in which the bat hit the ball, the man lifted his arms, the team spilled onto the field. And video can illustrate the desperate dive and the kid running harder than he ever has around third base and the dust that kicked up when he stomped on home plate. Nothing can do justice to 40,502 people with three decades of pent-up frustration and sadness and losing unburdening themselves with a simultaneous scream, primal and redemptive, beautiful and bestial, proper.
—  Jeff Passan on the Royals win over the Athletics (via)