To say the Yankees starting rotation is a mess is right now is sort of like saying that New York is a fairly big city. Things don't exactly look like they're going to get better anytime soon either, at least not on their own. Ivan Nova is done for the season and Michael Pineda is still several weeks from returning to the majors. CC Sabathia will attempt to come back on a freshly drained, cortisone injected knee, but ominous phrases like "degenerative changes" from Dr. James Andrews certainly don't sound good. Hiroki Kuroda's body is healthy, but his pitching hasn't been - the 39-year-old has an ERA over 5.00 in his last eighteen starts, dating back to August of last year, and he's recorded an out in the seventh inning just three times in eight games this season.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, mid-May is a little early for most teams to be thinking trade, especially in baseball's new era of parity. The standings thus far are a giant cluster with only three teams in the entire sport sitting more than four games back from a playoff spot. That means there aren't many GM's looking to sell off their valuables, at least not yet. But eventually the Yankees will need to do something, and as Tanya noted yesterday, the Steinbrenners are willing to expand their budget to make it happen. Here's an early look at a few names they might consider making a play for.
Cubs righty Jeff Samarzija has been the most talked-about name on baseball's trade market for the past few months and that talk has only grown as Chicago's start to the season has been predictably awful. Despite the ugliness around him, the 29-year-old former Notre Dame wide out seems to finally be harnessing his vast potential. Through eight starts he's got an ERA of 1.45 and a FIP of 2.93 to go along with strong peripherals - a WHIP of 1.05, a K:BB rate of 2.81 a ground ball rate of 51.6 percent and a puny home run rate of 0.32.
With another year of arbitration to go before becoming a free agent in 2016, Theo Epstein's asking price for Samarzija will be well...high - as in start with Gary Sanchez and keep going. Beyond that, keeping Samarzija past next year would require an extension similar to or greater than the six-year, $105 mil guarantee the Reds gave to Homer Bailey this winter. That's a hefty price, both in prospects and in dollars, but Samardzija is a guy with top notch stuff still in his twenties. He'd slot right into the Yankees' number two spot behind Masahiro Tanaka to form a very tough tandem that could last for a number of years.
A significantly cheaper - and lesser - Cubs righty who could also be on the move is former Oriole Jason Hammel, who's looked solid after signing a one-year, $6 million deal with Chicago. Through 47.2 innings over seven starts, Hammel's 2.45 ERA is mostly thanks to an unsustainable .203 BABIP, but his FIP is still a solid 3.54 and he's managed the difficult AL before, albeit not very well in 2013.
If the Yankees are out to find back-of-the-rotation fodder to help hold the fort down in hopes that Kuroda regains his form and Sabathia and Pineda return healthy and effective, Hammel, with his low salary and probably low prospect cost, may be a guy they'll take a look at.
After extension negotiations with the Indians fell through in the spring, Justin Masterson is off to a so-so start this year, with an ERA of 4.31, a FIP of 3.69 and a WHIP of 1.38 through nine starts. The main issue was that Cleveland refused to offer more than three years, apparently due to concern over a dip in their 29-year-old's velocity and that trend has continued into 2014 as Masterson's average fastball has dropped to 89 mph. Still, there are a lot of things to like. Masterson doesn't give up home runs - he's never allowed more than 0.79 per nine innings as a starter - and he keeps the ball on the ground - his 63.2 percent ground ball rate this year is second among qualified major league pitchers.
Admittedly, a lot would have to happen for the Indians to make Masterson available this year even as his free agency approaches. They'd need to fall out of the race - they're in fourth place in the AL Central as of Wednesday night's games, but at 19-21, they're only two games out of the AL's second wildcard spot - and they'd have to find themselves a pretty good offer, one the Yankees might not be willing to (or able to) cede for a three or four month mid-rotation rental.
The reason Mark Buehrle might be had is that he's due to earn around $31 million over the next year and two thirds thanks to a heavily back-loaded deal he signed with the Marlins back in 2011. The Blue Jays may prefer not to pay that much to a 35-year-old who hasn't had an xFIP under 4.00 since 2008. From the Yankees' perspective, despite his high actual cost, Buehrle "only" counts for $14.5 million per year against the luxury tax. If a salary dump similar to the Alfonso Soriano deal is something Toronto would consider, they'd have to be somewhat interested.
Buehrle's 7-1, 2.04 ERA start is hugely cosmetic thanks to a career-best left-on-base rate of 81.1 percent and a ridiculous home run to fly ball percentage of 1.9. As the season goes on he'll probably regress to the solid but unspectacular low strikeout, high efficiency pitcher he's been for the past several seasons, but for the Yankees, that's not something to scoff at (have you ever actually scoffed at anything?) For a rotation in desperate need of stability, a pitcher who's thrown 200 or more innings thirteen years in a row might be quite a fit.
James Shields might be a pie-in-the-sky type fictional target since the Royals have given no indication that they're willing to deal him, especially after giving up one of the top young hitters in baseball in Wil Myers to acquire him. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that Shields is headed for free agency at year's end and his asking price is said to be in the range of Zack Greinke's six-year, $147 million contract with the Dodgers. While Kansas City's payroll has risen by over $50 million since 2011, that's still more than triple the largest guarantee in franchise history - $55 million for both Mike Sweeney and Gil Meche.
Like Samardzija, Shields would be an ideal top-of-the-rotation partner for Tanaka that would make the Yankee staff a lot more formidable heading into the second half. Also like Samardzija, though, Shields' price tag would be insane, and would absolutely have to include Sanchez and whatever other higher-end prospects the Yankees could muster. Salvador Perez's presence likely makes Sanchez less attractive to the Royals than to most other teams, so even if Shields does hit the market, Brian Cashman would face a pretty steep uphill climb to acquire him.
Of course there are plenty of others whose names might get brought up in trade talks in the coming weeks. The Post mentions Cliff Lee and Bronson Arroyo, in addition to Samardzija and Hammel as names the Yankees might target, but Lee has a no-trade clause that includes the Yankees and Arroyo's sky-high home run rates make him a terrible fit for New York. The Pirates are off to a rough start, so perhaps Francisco Liriano or Edinson Volquez could be a possibility. One way or another, with starting pitching now clearly their greatest need, it'll be an interesting couple of months for the Yankee front office.