The New York Yankees received a Cy Young worthy effort from Masahiro Tanaka and a triumphant comeback from CC Sabathia in 2016, but after that the starting rotation was wildly inconsistent. The results will most certainly push the Yankees into investigating the starting pitching market via free agency and through trades, but will they make any significant moves?
The Yankees have options in the organization to round out the rotation -- Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell and Chad Green -- plus a handful of minor leaguers looking to become part of the conversation. The issue here is that there are significant questions about each of those options and to be honest, there are potential problems with Tanaka (elbow) and Sabathia (age) as well. Should the Yankees sit back and hope for the best without approaching the market, the club could miss their second-straight postseason and fourth in five seasons.
At the top of the very thin free agent market among starting pitchers is Rich Hill, who has reinvented his game over the last couple of seasons. Hill, a 37-year-old left-hander, could be looking for as much as a three-year deal. Because he is a left-hander with a very good home run rate, Hill becomes a good fit at Yankee Stadium, especially with fellow southpaw Sabathia wrapping up his contract in New York next season. Hill threw just 110 1/3 innings in 2016, but maintained a 2.12 ERA, 2.39 FIP, 1.00 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 2.7 BB, 0.3 HR/9 and a 45.3 percent ground ball rate.
Another potential starting pitcher the Yankees could speak with on the free agent market could be Jeremy Hellickson, who turned in a fine season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016. Hellickson, a 30-year-old right-hander, is hitting the free agent market for the first time in his career. Hellickson had a 3.70 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9 with a 40.7 percent ground ball rate in 189 innings.
Personally, I would be leery about Hill, simply because of his age and the chance that injuries could mount. A three-year commitment seems awfully risky despite the upside. And such a deal goes against the grain to the Yankees' recent methodology. In Hellickson, the Yankees should be wary of extending a contract to him as the Phillies will reportedly tag him with a qualifying offer. The Yankees' desire to continue building their farm system would surely be stunted by giving up their first round pick (now No. 17) for a pitcher they might see as a middle of the rotation option.
The second problem with these pitchers is that they might not be any more valuable than what the Yankees can run out to the mound in 2017 without making any moves. In my opinion, if the Yankees are adamant about finding a starting pitcher it needs to be a No. 2 type starter or one with ace potential. Tanaka can (and if healthy through 2017, likely will) opt out of his contract after next season, leaving the Yankees without a frontline starter for 2018.
The Yankees can look straight to the Chicago White Sox for options that fit that bill. Lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana would slot straight into top spots in the Yankees' rotation and each comes with reasonable costs and control -- something important to the Yankees considering they would have to part ways with high-profile prospects for either pitcher.
Sale, who turns 28 years old at the start of next season, would surely cost at least a couple of the Yankees' top prospects, but what he brings to the table might be worth it. Sale tossed 226 2/3 innings in 2016, generating a 3.34 ERA, 3.46 FIP 1.04 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9 and 41.2 ground ball rate. He is a perennial Cy Young Award candidate who has an incredibly reasonable three years and $38 million left on his current contract (the last two seasons are club options).
With the former Yankee farmhand Quintana, the prospect cost will still be significant, but likely less steep than what it would take to snag Sale. Quintana, who will also turn 28 years old before next season begins, comes with potential control through the 2020 season (the last two years being options) for what would cost $35.8 million across the four seasons. In 2016, Quintana pitched to a 3.20 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9 and 40.4 ground ball rate. Quintana's stats resemble Sales' minus the strikeout rate, so the Yankees might be willing to part with fewer prospects in order to gain an extra year of less expensive control.
The Yankees might be believed to have an excess of middle infielders in the system with Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo at the top of organization prospect lists. However, as good as those players might become, they will not be enough on their own to land Sale or Quintana from the White Sox. In fact, the White Sox might want another top prospect, an MLB-ready player and more lower profile prospects. It could take as many as five players to acquire Sale and four to grab Quintana.
On a much smaller scale, the Yankees have an asset in catcher Brian McCann, who could bring back a starting pitcher in a trade. I've written that the Yankees should stick with McCann for the time being, but it would not be out of the realm of possibility for the Yanks to take advantage of a thin catching market.
McCann has been linked to the Atlanta Braves since the trade deadline, and a pitcher named in rumors was right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. The 25-year-old Foltynewicz is a former first round pick (No. 19 overall for the Houston Astros) tossed 123 1/3 innings in 2016 generating a 4.31 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9 and a 41.2 percent ground ball rate.
The Yankees are not working in the mode of a complete rebuild. The club is doing its best to transition away from older players with large contracts to younger players with upside potential, combined with controllable stars while being competitive in the tough American League East.
Of the players presented here, the trades would make the most sense to me, with the caveat of figuring out a way to maintain the organization's top talent. The problem is the White Sox are not going to give away either of their pitchers, which would force the Yankees to make a very tough decision. In Foltynewicz, I'm not certain the Yankees gain a player better than those they hope will ascend the system ladder in the same time frame. And if they did pull the trigger, he would not provide the quality of a No. 2 starter they need.
I hate to say it, but don't be surprised if none of this comes to fruition. My belief is that the Yankees will concentrate on the bullpen in the hopes that some of their in-house talent can take the next step to keep the club in the postseason race. They might then venture back into the free agent and trade markets next offseason once they learn more about what they have within the organization.