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Yankees mailbag: Astros sign-stealing scandal, Aaron Boone, prospects

The answers to this week’s mailbag are in.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, friends, I’ll give you three guesses as to the theme of this week’s mailbag. The sign-stealing scandal is inescapable. I tried to mix it up a bit, too, including other submissions. As always, leave your questions in our weekly mailbag call or our inbox, pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Yanks4ever asks: Do you believe this cheating saga will significantly hurt the Astros’ hitters in their upcoming free agencies?

A few notable Astros will hit free agency in the coming years. Yuli Gurriel, Michael Brantley, and George Springer reach the open market after this season, while Carlos Correa follows the year after. While the scandal may sound the death knell for management, I don’t think the players involved will see their stock hurt.

Why not? There are a few reasons. First, these players are majorly talented. Did stealing signs help them at the plate? Of course. Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) noted a dramatic improvement in the Astros’ plate discipline after the scheme went into action. But all of these players were top prospects who had elite-level tools, not just plate discipline.

Take Springer for example. The Astros just settled with him on a $21 million contract for 2020. If they had concerns that his performance would drop without stolen signs, they certainly wouldn’t have paid him that kind of money. If the Astros aren’t afraid to pay him, other teams shouldn’t be.

Maybe—just maybe—they get stuck with a Manny Machado “Johnny Hustle” label, but I doubt it. Like other free agents, they will be judged by their performance in their walk years.

Steve asks: How should we re-evaluate Aaron Boone in light of what we know about Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch? In other words, Yankee fans love to complain about Boone (as do all fans of their manager), but who is clearly better? If asked a year ago, Yankee fans would probably point to Cora and Hinch. Joe Maddon seems to have lost his shine, and we won’t even mention Dave Roberts’ performance in the postseason. Thoughts?

The sign-stealing scandal unquestionably tarnishes the reputations and legacies of both Cora and Hinch, two managers who previously had been highly respected within the game. Does this offer a new lens through which we can evaluate Boone’s body of work? Sure it does, but maybe not to a radical degree.

The 2018 season stands out, where Cora and Boone were inextricably linked. Both were rookie managers on massively talented teams. Every move Cora made worked brilliantly, while Boone had a solid debut season, only to get completely outmatched by the Red Sox in the ALDS. That series was not Boone’s shining moment, and he deserved the criticism he received.

The scandal does, however, cast a shadow over Cora’s decisions, and leads one to question how he got everything right. I don’t remember fans saying the Yankees should have hired Cora, but they wanted a manager of his style. In retrospect, they’re probably glad the Bombers didn’t go that route.

Here’s another important point here: Boone grew on Yankees fans in 2019. Consider our FanPulse managerial approval rating. The skipper averaged an 87% approval rating after his Savages in the Box rant. Every fanbase will complain about their team’s manager, that’s natural. For the Yankees, however, Boone seems quite popular.

Ruff Trade asks: Certain teams—the Rays, Cardinals, Dodgers—are always mentioned as having strong farm systems. I understand that under-performing (uh, tanking) teams are given earlier draft picks, but the Cardinals and Dodgers don’t have that excuse and they consistently turn out impact rookies. What can the Yanks do to improve their farm system to the level of these elites?

I have a feature-length article treatment on this in the early stages, but let me tell you, the Yankees routinely blow the first-year player draft. Baseball America (subscription required) recently ranked teams’ drafts during the 2010s, and the Yankees finished 28th out of 30. Sure, they consistently pick near the bottom of the first round, but that’s horrific value from their drafts. Their emphasis of character over talent—see Cito Culver, Dante Bichette Jr., and to a lesser degree Anthony Volpe—directly weakens their farm system. That’s how the Dodgers end up with Gavin Lux, Alex Verdugo, and Walker Bueheler debuting on a yearly basis. Draft talent, and good things happen.

Mark asks: With regards to Jacoby Ellsbury, is there any history of a team actually not paying a guaranteed salary before? What would you say the Yankees chances are?

There is, in fact, recent precedent for this. You just have to look across town. The Mets and Yoenis Cespedes agreed on a salary restructuring after an incident with a wild boar. Seriously. That’s like baseball injury Mad Libs.

After that, the Mets refused to pay Cespedes attempted to get some of their money back. A settlement essentially docked Cespedes $29.5 million total in salary for 2019 and 2020. He can make up to $17.5 million in incentives. The outfielder signed this four-year, $110 million with the Mets in November 2016.

The Yankees allege that Ellsbury received unauthorized treatment while on the injured list, and while there’s no wild boar involved, the cases are kind of similar. I suspect a similar resolution to the Mets’ situation: the Yankees refuse payment until a grievance process results in a settlement.