By Chris O’Connor
December 19, 2022
As I am sure that you have heard, the Yankees recently signed Carlos Rodon, one of the top starting pitchers on the free-agent market, to a six year, $162M dollar contract. I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of Rodon and his repertoire. In short, Rodon was the third overall pick in the 2014 draft and became one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He struggled with injuries and inconsistency (including undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2019) for years before putting it all together in 2021. After putting together an even more dominant 2022, Rodon’s total fWAR over the last two seasons (11.1) ranks third among all pitchers. This guy is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball and if he can stay healthy, this contract may turn into a steal. Here are some of my big-picture takeaways on the deal:
Aaron Judge is more frustrated than he has let on by consistently falling short in the playoffs, and I am not sure that any MLB player in recent history has utilized his leverage to a greater extent than Judge did over the Yankees this offseason. Kudos to Judge, who was reported to be one of the driving forces behind the Rodon signing. He is a 31 year-old corner outfielder and his size blows up nearly all precedent regarding his aging curve. He is the exact type of free agent that teams have devalued in recent years. His leverage skyrocketed not only after having one of the greatest regular-seasons in MLB history, but also the perception that the Yankees had to retain him due to the general frustration of fans with the current regime. If he did not realize it already, Yankee fans do not hang banners for division titles or playoff berths; fairly or not, the Yankees are judged by a championship-or-bust mantra. Judge had one of the greatest regular seasons in baseball history but was booed after struggling in the playoffs. Maybe that was a wake-up call, maybe it did not mean anything. But Judge seems to realize that only a championship can cement his status in Yankees lore and using his leverage over the Yankees to get them to spend on an ace like Rodon is a great step toward achieving that goal.
I already believed this, but the Rodon signing strengthened my belief that the Yankees organizational philosophy is that the playoffs are more luck and randomness than most fans would like to believe. In that vein, the big goal is to make it to the playoffs and then after that, mostly hope that things break your way. The Yankees have petered out in the past few postseasons because their offense has struggled to put up runs. Even if the starting pitching depth has not always been as deep as many would like, the Yankees have consistently had a strong bullpen to carry the load. Signing another starting pitcher does not change the fact that the Yankees lineup has regressed significantly since the start of the 2021 season. Guys like D.J. LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Josh Donaldson, and Aaron Hicks have not produced offensively like they did in the preceding years and, aside from Torres, their ages make a return-to-peak-form increasingly unlikely. While LeMahieu, for example, can still be a productive player, I’m not sure that he’ll ever play at the 2019-2020 MVP-level again. If their older position players (LeMahieu, Rizzo) show signs of aging, and Aaron Judge and Jose Trevino regress from career seasons, where is the offensive coming from? I have serious questions about the lineup in the postseason, and the loss of Andrew Benintendi does not help. But Rodon certainly helps the Yankees make it to the playoffs, and maybe that’s all that can be done.
The Yankees pitching development machine allows a signing like this to happen. The way that the Yankees have structured their pitching reminds me of the LA Rams stars and scrubs approach. The big idea is to extend significant resources toward the brightest of stars and then cheaply fill out the rest of the roster. The Yankees do not need to spend $15-$20 million on a mid-tier guy like Jameson Taillon when they can spend heavily on stars like Rodon and Gerrit Cole, and then rely on their pipeline for cheap arms like Nestor Cortes and Domingo German. The AAV for Cole and Rodon is $63 million, and Nestor Cortes and Domingo German project to earn a combined $6.7 million in arbitration in 2023. That’s $69.7 million for those four. The combined AAV for four mid-tier starters in free agency (Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Andersen) is… $69 million. It’s not a perfect comparison; I’m not even sure that German will be in the rotation as the Yankees also have Luis Severino and Frankie Montas. But the overall point stands: The Yankees philosophy on starting pitching, with their budget in mind, is to rely on their internal development to bring up guys on the cheap to complement highly-paid stars at the top of the rotation. For the Yankees, it’s not too difficult to develop someone to come close to the production of Jameson Taillon. A star like Rodon, much like Matthew Stafford and Jalen Ramsey, is much harder to develop and thus usually must be acquired through a trade or free agency.
For all of the criticism that Hal Steinbrenner gets, I think he gets credit for this: when the Yankees really want a guy, they almost always get him. From Giancarlo Stanton to Gerrit Cole to Aaron Judge to Carlos Rodon, the Yankees have shown that they will spend to get a player if they want him badly enough. The problem is that they do not seem to want as many guys as they need, like passing on two of the greatest shortstop classes in recent history when your best current option is either IKF or an untested prospect. Still, with three $300 million players on the roster and a $162 million starting pitcher, it is a nice reminder the the Yankees can still act like the Yankees when they want to.