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The Strike Zone

Yankees retain Hiroki Kuroda but pitching staff still needs work

Hiroki Kuroda, YankeesHiroki Kuroda's 2013 performance fell off markedly in the last two months of the season. (Porter Binks)

Well, the Yankees have certainly had an interesting week. In addition to landing Jacoby Ellsbury, introducing Brian McCann and losing Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, they were able to cross one other important off their shopping list when they agreed to terms with Hiroki Kuroda on Friday to a one-year, $16 million deal plus incentives. It's a move that will help to stabilize a rotation that nonetheless remains a work in progress.

The 38-year-old Kuroda was the Yankees' best starting pitcher in 2013 and one of the few bright spots for a team that missed the playoffs for just the second time in the past 19 seasons due to a slew of injuries. Kuroda threw 201 1/3 innings with a 3.31 ERA, offsetting a modest strikeout rate (6.7 per nine) with outstanding control (3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio) en route to a staff-high 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version). Among the six pitchers who made at least 10 starts for the team, only Ivan Nova had a lower ERA (3.10), but he threw 62 fewer innings.

In six seasons since coming over from the Japanese Central League, Kuroda has been one of the game's most consistent pitchers, delivering an ERA of 3.76 or lower and an ERA+ of 106 or higher in each year. He's made 31 starts in a season at least five times, reached 195 innings or more in the past four and topped 200 innings for the past three. Despite leaving pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium for hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium after the 2011 season, his past two years have been his most impressive. After delivering a 3.45 ERA (113 ERA+) and averaging 175 innings and 2.4 WAR with Los Angeles, he's improved to a 3.31 ERA (125 ERA+) while averaging 211 innings and 4.8 WAR with New York.

As he's done after each of the past three seasons, Kuroda had to decide whether to remain in the U.S. or return to Japan, either for a finale in Nippon Professional Baseball or outright retirement. He didn't sign with the Yankees for 2012 until Jan. 26 of that year, though he was back in the fold for 2013 by Nov. 20, 2012. His willingness to work year-to-year is a significant boon for a team that is trying to cut costs and minimize the number of long-term, big-dollar deals on its books; even so, his salary has risen from $10 million to $15 million to $16 million during his time in New York.

As strong as Kuroda's performance was in 2013, he faded over the final third of the season. Through the end of July, he pitched to a 2.38 ERA with 15 quality starts out of 22. In August and September, he was rocked for a 5.40 ERA with only four quality starts out of 10, and just two out of his last eight. It's tempting to attribute that to his age and stamina, but in looking over his peripheral statistics, it's not surprising that he regressed at least somewhat. His Fielding Independent Pitching for the first stretch was 3.54, with a .255 batting average on balls in play helping him beat that estimate by more than a run. His FIP for the second stretch was 4.01, but his BABIP shot to .342. In other words, his performance between the two splits didn't change all that much, but his defensive support did.

In a year that saw staff ace CC Sabathia's ERA balloon to 4.78 and the since-departed Phil Hughes come in even higher at 5.19, it's tempting to attribute New York's playoff miss to the decline of its rotation. It did fall off relative to the league somewhat, but it wasn't all that far removed from the team's recent history:

YearFIPERAAL SP ERADif
20094.384.484.62-0.14
20104.554.354.350.00
20114.094.034.21-0.18
20124.224.054.37-0.32
20133.994.084.15-0.07

Even without any park adjustment, the Yankee rotation's ERA was better than the AL average for the fourth year out of five and its FIP was the lowest it's been in that span. The collective performance just wasn't enough for a team that dipped from 4.96 runs per game of scoring in 2012 (second-best in the league) to 4.01 per game in 2013 (10th). The latter was New York's lowest mark since 1990, as injuries to Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson exacerbated the free agent departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and even Raul Ibanez. Yankees hitters turned in an OPS below .600 at DH, catcher and shortstop, and below .700 at first base, third base, leftfield and rightfield.

Kuroda doesn't solve that problem, and even with his return, the team's rotation is set at only three spots, with Sabathia and Nova occupying the other two. David Phelps and Michael Pineda are penciled in as the fourth and fifth starters, but the former was touched for a 4.93 ERA in 12 starts last year, and the latter hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011 due to a torn labrum; he missed all of 2012 after undergoing surgery and threw 40 2/3 innings in the minors in 2013 before being shut down due to fatigue.

Particularly with the departure of Cano, the Yankees are likely to pursue another Japanese hurler, Masahiro Tanaka, but in the wake of negotiations between NPB and MLB over changes to the posting process, it's unclear whether his team, the Rakuten Eagles, is still willing to make him available. The tentative agreement in place caps the posting fee at $20 million, well below the $51.7 million the Rangers bid for Yu Darvish or the $51.1 million the Red Sox bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. That leaves more money for MLB teams to pay the Japanese players — money that's subject to the luxury tax, while the posting fee isn't — but less incentive for Japanese teams to part with their stars. Additionally, instead of one team winning exclusive negotiating rights by dramatically outbidding the competition as the Rangers and Red Sox did, the new process would allow any team meeting the $20 million fee to negotiate with the player. As before, any team not signing him within the 30-day window would have its posting fee returned. Kuroda never went through the posting process, having reached free agency after 11 seasons with the Hiroshima Carp.

With or without Cano, Kuroda's return is a step in the right direction for the Yankees. They are not only getting a reliable number two starter without tying themselves up in a long-term commitment, but they're also getting the only free agent on the market who delivered more than half of Cano's combined 16.1 WAR over the past two years. Even so, they still have plenty of work to do to close the gap between themselves and the AL East- and championship-winning Red Sox -- starting with a new second baseman.
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