- The Yankees' lack of starting pitching depth was their biggest problem in 2018. What can they do this offseason to fix it?
CC Sabathia’s final ride will come in the Bronx. Late Tuesday, word leaked via several reporters that the hefty lefty veteran would be returning to the Yankees on a one-year, $8 million deal and for a 19th season in the majors, which the Yankees confirmed on Wednesday. That 2019 campaign will also be his last: According to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, Sabathia plans to retire after the season.
While it’s a shame that Sabathia’s retirement tour won’t come in the green and gold of his hometown Oakland A’s (who were reportedly interested in him), the Yankees have to be pleased that he’ll wrap up his sterling career in pinstripes. Since a three-year swoon from 2013 to ’15 due to persistent knee troubles and a dip in velocity, Sabathia has bounced back as a reliable back-of-the-rotation presence in New York. In 2018, he posted a 3.65 ERA, 120 ERA+ and 2.3 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) across 153 innings over 29 starts. That marked his third straight above-average season—a late-career renaissance for the big man, who has transformed fully into a stereotypical Crafty Lefty.
Set to turn 39 next July, Sabathia is not the workhorse ace of his youth, averaging just 5 1/3 innings per turn last season. He struggled in the second half of the season, with a 4.39 ERA from the start of July through the end of September, and he lasted just three innings in his lone playoff start, giving up three runs in the Yankees’ ALDS-ending defeat to Boston.
In New York, though, Sabathia won’t be counted on to be a front-line starter—just veteran depth. Still, he alone can’t be the team’s only rotation move. The Yankees have to add starting pitching this winter; something that general manager Brian Cashman made clear is an offseason priority. “I’m interested in adding more than one pitcher,” he told reporters at this week’s GM Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. “I need to, I think, add multiple [pitchers]…. I’m not going to say who and when. We will make sure that we check every box in terms of evaluating what’s available.”
New York’s current starting five is three deep: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Sabathia. (There’s also Sonny Gray, but Cashman has said repeatedly that he’s as good as gone after a rough 2018 season.) So what routes do the Yankees have to bolster that group? Let’s run down their options.
1. Promote The Kids
As far as internal depth goes, the Yankees have a sizable pool of intriguing arms: Domingo German, Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Justus Sheffield, and Chance Adams. But are any ready to step up and become dependable major league starters?
German showed wipeout stuff across 14 starts with the Yankees in 2018, but he also posted a bloated 5.57 ERA before an arm injury shelved him for most of the second half. Cessa is a Triple-A arm best suited for long relief and spot start duty. Like German, Loaisiga piled up strikeouts in his short stint with New York, but wildness and shoulder problems limited his effectiveness. No one in that trio can be counted on for much more next year.
Sheffield and Adams are the top prospects in waiting, though neither looked ready for an MLB rotation spot. The former, 22, had a 2.86 ERA in Triple A but with unexceptional peripherals (8.6 strikeouts per nine, 3.7 walks per nine). The 23-year-old Adams struggled in his second tour of Triple A, with a 4.78 ERA across 113 innings thanks to too many walks and home runs allowed. Both seem like they need more seasoning.
One other in-house solution exists: Jordan Montgomery. The lefty was excellent in 2017 and equally good early in ’18 before suffering a torn UCL in his elbow. His rehab from Tommy John surgery should have him back in the second half of next season—a possible boost, but not someone to be relied upon.
2. Spend In Free Agency
The free-agent market for pitchers isn’t all that strong, consisting mostly of aging veterans like Sabathia. More of the same of that won’t help the Yankees much: They need consistency with upside, not innings-eaters or reclamation projects.
In that vein, the best fit is lefty Patrick Corbin, who’s coming off a breakout year with Arizona in which he set career-high marks in ERA (3.15), ERA+ (137), strikeout-per-nine rate (11.1) and bWAR (4.6). Armed with a fastball that sits below 91 mph, he’s not a hard-thrower, but he succeeds by getting hitters to chase outside the strike zone and make lots of weak contact. That also makes him a good fit for a Yankees team that eschews the fastball: No squad threw fewer heaters than New York at 47.4%, and Corbin’s fastball percentage of 48.6 was the lowest mark of his career. But Corbin won’t come cheap or on a short deal.
Beyond Corbin, the Yankees could kick the tires on a similar pitcher in Dallas Keuchel, another lefty without a blazing fastball. Keuchel, though, is less durable and 18 months older than Corbin, making him a riskier buy.
A reunion with J.A. Happ is also possible. Yet another veteran lefty, Happ was excellent after coming to the Yankees in a deadline deal, with a 2.69 ERA and 163 ERA+ in 63 2/3 innings. At 35, he wouldn’t require the same kind of financial commitment that Corbin would, and the Yankees already know he can handle himself in the AL East.
Speaking of reunions, ex-Yankee and Red Sox World Series hero Nate Eovaldi is available. The oft-injured righty was stellar in the postseason, and he credited his improvement to the work he did with New York pitching coach Larry Rothschild. His arm may be a ticking time bomb, but he has perhaps the most upside of anyone on the market.
3. Make A Trade
This might end up being the desired course of action for Yankees fans online in the wake of news that the Indians and Mariners are willing to make their aces available. Cleveland is reportedly open to moving Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco, and Seattle is considering a rebuild that would likely push James Paxton out the door.
Any of that trio would be a huge get for the Yankees, though the prospect cost would be enormous. Outfielder Clint Frazier and at least one of Sheffield or Adams would almost certainly be part of the package; so might Miguel Andujar, a Rookie of the Year finalist. New York’s farm system is deep and productive, but Cashman may shy away from the price.
He’d be getting an ace in return, though—and a cost-affordable one at that. Kluber is the most expensive of the trio, but he’ll cost just $52 million over the next three seasons—two of which are team option years with low buyouts. Carrasco is owed roughly $20 million over the next two years, the latter of which is a team option for $9.5 million with a cheap buyout. Paxton is still arbitration eligible: He’ll get a raise from last year’s $4.9 million salary, but he’s under cheap team control through the 2021 season (though the lefty is already 30 years old).
Beyond those three, there’s not much known to be available, though it is early in the winter. New York could explore a deal for the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer, a popular target during the season but who struggled with injuries. The Diamondbacks will likely put Zack Greinke on the block, but he’s owed another $104.5 million over the next three years and turned 35 in October. And depending on what direction new boss Farhan Zaidi wants to take the Giants, Madison Bumgarner could go on the market if San Francisco wants to pursue a rebuild.
Ultimately, Cashman has choices to strengthen his rotation. Sabathia is back, but he won’t be the only move the Yankees make. Expect to hear plenty of rumors connecting the Bronx Bombers to the market’s best arms, and don’t be surprised if the biggest trade of the winter involves them picking up an ace.