The Present Conundrum
by Cary Greene
December 13, 2022
With Aaron Judge now secured, Yankees GM Brian Cashman can turn his assiduity to the team's multitudes of other issues, needing to likewise focus on keeping the swelling of a now bloating payroll under control. The Yankees were waxed by the Astros in four-straight games in the ALCS this past season and to date, it's basically the exact same cast of characters returning, minus Jameson Taillon, Andrew Benintedi, and Matt Carpenter.
It’s great that Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo are both back, and the addition of Tommy Kahnle should help bolster the bullpen, but it’s not like the Yankees have done much at all in terms of improving last season’s team that failed to take the hill. Expecting to change without changing anything is of course the very definition of insanity, yet here we are - staring into oblivion, with parched, dry mouths caused by what is now 13-years of championship drought in the Bronx. Granted, Cashman has been steadily cutting checks from Hal Steinbrenner’s check book in an attempt to make yet another attempt at designing a 2023 World Series contender, but has the needle really moved?
There is no denying that the Yankees are engaged in a partial youth movement, but Cashman has struggled to keep the plan intact because over the past two-seasons now, he’s routinely had to overpay in prospect cache due to offseason plans that didn’t materialize.
Presently, as constructed, the Yankees still have major question marks at the most important position on the diamond - shortstop, they need to upgrade the starting rotation, a left fielder needs to be acquired via free agency or trade, and they have a number of players who, based on their performance, are not worth the money Cashman has agreed to pay them.
It's all about the Budget
With Judge added, the Yankees payroll now balloons into the CBT’s “Second-Tier.” The payroll now moves up $40-million or so, to approximately $266.5-million, which lands the in the Second-Tier, $6.5-million below Tier-Three’s $273-million ceiling. It does seem that the 2023 Yankees are destined to land in the CBT’s Third-Tier, with Cashman perhaps trying to also shed some payroll this offseason to ease the luxury tax hit on team owner Hal Steinbrenner.
Quite possibly, Cashman is shopping both Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson. The Diamondbacks have shown interest in both Justin Turner and Evan Longoria recently. I wonder if they also might consider trading with the Yankees for Josh Donaldson? Hopefully, Cashman has been in contact with them regarding this possibility.
With premier shortstops Dansby Swanson and Carlos Correa also left on the board, the Yankees might do something surprisingly big any day now. Considering the shift is going away, shortstops with range will matter more than ever. Personally, I think Swanson might make a bit more sense than Correa, but there’s been no tangible news connecting the Yankees to Swanson and it seems the Dodgers are interested in signing him presently, though the rumors tend to swirl daily this time of year.
Today however, I’d like to focus on the starting pitching, because I believe if the Yankees fail to significantly upgrade their rotation, their chances of winning a World Series go down dramatically.
Which Available Free Agent Starters Make Sense?
With Carlos Rodon reportedly being very open to being on the east coast, the Yankees have emerged with a very strong chance to land the big lefty who is widely considered to be the best available starter on the market. However, it’s being reported by John Heyman of the NY Post that some recent developments may have stalled negotiations between the Yankees and Rodon. A few days ago, Rodon was reportedly seeking a six-year deal, but now he’s apparently asking for seven-years in the wake of what has been a 2022 offseason that’s been quite friendly towards handing out long term deals for star players thus far.
Appearing to be a very good bet, Rodon did a fantastic job limiting the offensive output of opposing hitters last season as they managed just a .255 wOBA against the unorthodox fireballer. Rodon is a power-lefty who features primarily a crisply located four-seam fastball and a downright filthy slider, he’s just the kind of pitcher the Yankees have historically done well with. His 33.4-percent Strikeout Percentage was in the the top five-percent of all MLB pitchers last year and his Walk-Percentage of 7.3-percent was well under the League average of 8.4-percent.
Should Rodon’s trawler be intent on a long offseason voyage where he keeps dredging the open seas for the largest deal possible, there’s a chance that Yankees GM Brian Cashman may stop circling the boat and if that happens, the Yankees may need to face the reality that their pitching staff is going to be significantly weaker than it was last season, given that Jameson Taillon was non-tendered and recently signed with the Cubs. Most Yankees fans are hoping though that a deal with Rodon will soon be on the front pages of the sports section, so I thought it might be interesting to contemplate the Yankees fallback positions or depth options because either way, the Yankees likely will need to do more than signing one single pitcher this offseason. Regarding starting pitching, depth matters because injuries do happen.
There were some other very under the radar options the Yankees could look at to fill in their rotation and add depth behind the big four (Cole, Cortes, Severino and Montas), but not only are many of them rapidly falling off the board, but they are by no means as impactful as Rodon or some of the other names that have recently come off the board.
One of the directions Cashman could have gone in would have been to quietly add a few back of the rotation arms on reasonable contracts, so I’ve put together a group of pitchers we can look at today with the understanding that the names would probably make just as much sense whether Cashman signs Rodon, or not!
Considering that Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt are both presently on the 2023 roster, it’s conceivable that Cashman might look to add a starter who would be a clear upgrade from one or perhaps both of them. Another thing Cashman should consider is adding a few left-handers into the mix, considering he traded solid lefty Jordan Montgomery to the Cardinals at the deadline last season, while also dealing his two most promising Triple-A lefties last season, moving J.P. Sears and Ken Waldichuk to the A’s as two of the pieces required to net Frankie Montas. The Yankees system is now particularly devoid of nearly ready left-handed starters, considering there isn’t a single lefty ranked anywhere in their top 25 prospects, per MLB.COM.
Singing a Lefty
31-year-old lefty Ryan Yarbrough would be a valuable addition to the pitching staff because he’s very tough on left-handed batters, holding them to a .238 wOBA last season while posting a 4.77 FIP and a 4.32 SIERA with the Rays last season. His sinking cutter, changeup combination generated a 37.9-percent ground ball rate as well, so he’d be a valuable lefty coming out of the bullpen, who could also spot start at the back of the rotation as needed. In fact, the left-handed Yarbrough might pair nicely with right-handers Clarke Schmidt and Domingo German to provide some balanced depth among the Yankees long-relief corps.
Excellent overall arm health combined with Yarbrough’s 6’5” frame to make him an intriguing bullpen piece and he’d no doubt be available at a bargain price. He also developed his curve-ball while with the Rays last season and he began using it a lot more, demonstrating a willingness to throw it in any count - this along with increasing his faith in his sinker and using it more as well.
The main drawback to Yarbrough is that he simply doesn’t throw hard, in fact, he couldn’t if he wanted to. His fastball velocity is in the bottom 5-percent of the League. He sits 86-mph to 71-mph with his pitch mix and interestingly, his slow curve is by far his slowest pitch. He also doesn’t get good spin on any of his pitches, which is where Matt Blake might be able to help him. It would appear that Yarbrough’s change-up needs work as well, because if he could slow it down more, it might make his cutter play better.
Best Remaining Righty
One list that has shrunk quickly is the remaining free agent starting pitchers list, as starters have been in tremendously high demand this offseason. Cashman’s decision to trade Jordan Montgomery is still perplexing me as I examine which pitchers are left and at what cost they might be obtained.
There aren’t many starters of potential interest to the Yankees who are still left on the board. One potentially impactful name that fell off the board on Monday was Chris Bassitt, who agreed to terms with the Blue Jays on a very reasonable three-year, $63-million deal. The 34-year-old ex-Met who went 15-9 last season with a solid 3.42 ERA and a 3.66 FIP, which was good for a 2.7 f-WAR season. He would have been a good replacement for Jameson Taillon (3.91 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 2.3 f-WAR) and if signed for multiple seasons, Bassit could have provided some stability at the back end of the Yankees rotation.
One of the things to most like about Bassitt besides his ability to eat innings (he logged 181.1 IP last season), is that he’s a true 6-pitch starter that will literally throw almost any pitch in his arsenal at any time. His 93-mph sinker is by far his best pitch and he sets his other offerings up with it, as he’s able to locate the biting, breaking-pitch with 22.5-inches of vertical drop and 16.1-inches of break.
Think, “Tommy John” a bit here because that’s the kind of pitbull that Bassitt is. Once he’s ahead in a given count, Bassitt’s put-away pitch is his 79-mph slider that features 43.6-inches of drop. His ability to change speeds and locate the sinker are really the calling cards that have made him a legitimate big-league starter, as he sits 93-mph to 71-mph. He’s roughly league-average in terms of his Strikeout-Rate (22.4%) and his control is excellent. Bassitt should have been viewed by Cashman as a solid upgrade at the back end of the rotation and that could not only have helped the Yankees navigate the regular season, but it would have played well over the course of a few postseason starts as well.
Should the Yankees fail to sign Rodon, I expected to see a full-court press from Cashman as he looked to sign Bassitt - but the Blue Jays beat him to the punch. What’s also intriguing about Bassitt is that he’s demonstrated an ability to pitch not only in a big market, but here in New York. That matters a ton, especially considering that Frankie Montas, the Yankees current “number-four,” has not exactly done that yet. Cashman chose to sit this one out though, as he’s rumored to be working hard on swinging a trade.
Free agent pitching is expensive right now, so Yankees fans will simply need to accept that the market has adjusted this offseason as they contemplate and imagine what a championship rotation looks like.
In fact, up to this point, Gerrit Cole aside, Cashman has put very little money into the Yankees rotation. While the Yankees projected to spend $81.3-million on pitching this season, per Sportac, the Yankees number-two through number-five starters are slated to earn an AAV of only $5.6-million each this season, with only $22.5-million in payroll committed to them. I don’t think this type of thinking wins the World Series for the Yanekes.
Best of the Rest
Clearly our old friend turned nemesis, the 33-year-old Nathan Eovaldi, is another name that might catch the eye of Brian Cashman. Eovaldi pitched only 109-innings for the Red Sox in 2022 as he battled lower back and shoulder inflammation issues, going 6-3 with a 3.87 ERA, a 4.30 FIP and a low f-WAR of 1.0, the latter of which is to be expected given his lack of innings. Most worrisome regarding Eovaldi is the dip in velocity his fastball has suffered since 2021, as it dropped from 97-mph to 95.9 this past season.
Going forward, if Eovaldi’s fastball doesn’t return, he’ll have to play off his other four pitches more, his splitter and curve, which are the secondary offerings he has the most confidence in, and his slider and cutter which he uses much less frequently. The good news is opposing batters hit a combined .200 against the slider and cutter, while slugging only .400 while swinging and missing 40% of the time. He also still has superb control, as he flashed an outstandingly-low 4.3 walk-rate last season.
Over his last five starts of 2022, Eovaldi was looking like his old self again, posting a .225 ERA with 23 strikeouts and just six walks as he held opposing batters to a .252 average, though his BABIP against was .293.
My conclusion with Eovaldi is that he’s not what he once was and given that he’s already had two Tommy John surgeries, it may be more prudent for Brian Cashman to set his sights a bit higher in terms of adding a righty starter so targeting Chris Bassitt would have likely been more impactful, considering both he and Eovaldi will likely both command about the same $20-million in AAV.
Should Eovaldi drop off the board before Cashman can muster the chutzpah to sign a starting pitcher, perhaps the pitcher to target would be Michael Wacha, who had himself a very solid season while anchoring the Red Sox pitching staff at times last season, working quickly and vanquishing opposing hitters as he logged 127.1-innings, posting a 3.32 ERA, a 4.14 FIP and a 1.5 f-WAR.
At first glance, Statcast fans might skim over his lack of fastball velocity or his low spin-rates, but anyone who watched Wacha pitch last season knows his command is fabulous and he attacks opposing batters with a relentless mix of fastballs, change-ups and cutters, while also mixing in a curves and more sinkers. He also tweaked his usage last season, as relied a bit less on his fastball and a bit more on his change-up and his new found sinker.
The tweaks worked pretty well and Wacha had a pretty decent season all things considered. He’d make a very serviceable back of the rotation starter for the Yankees, but the question is, does he represent a significant upgrade over say Clarke Schmidt or Domingo German?
Given that Cashman has long blocked young, homegrown starters and considering that he jury is still out on whether or not Schmidt is a starter or a reliever, it would probably be a solid move to just hand the ball to Schmidt regularly and get out of the way. He’s been a starter all of his career so far and at only 27-years old, now is the time to take advantage of the value proposition he represents.
Short of trading for a quality starter with more upside, I conclude that the Yankees should add Yarbrough if possible, while continuing to get Schmidt as many innings as a starter as possible.