As of now, the Yankees only have about three rock solid candidates for their 2017 starting rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda had varying levels of success in 2016, but they all took the ball every fifth day fairly reliably. Beyond that, the back of the rotation is much more muddled, with the roles of Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Adam Warren, and Bryan Mitchell still to be determined.
Regardless of who initially slots into the rotation at the start of next season, the Yankees will need a number of starters to get through the year. In 2016, a season in which Nathan Eovaldi was the only starter to suffer a major injury, the Yankees still needed nine starters to take the ball at some point. Even if they opt to fill the fourth and fifth starter slots with young, internal players, more depth will be necessary.
Which leads us to the obvious question: should the Yankees add a starter on the free agent market? This a barren market for starting pitching. Rich Hill is the only pitcher with a recent track record of excellence, and the Yankees are sure to kick the tires on him. If they don't roll the dice on Hill's combination of injury risk and potential dominance, what other external options are there?
One plan the Yankees could pursue is one they have rarely had the chance to. Given their usual status as big spenders on the free agent market, the Yankees have hardly ever looked for values in the free agent bargain bin. They have generally shopped at the top of the market, signing the likes of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera, and Jacoby Ellsbury.
For the Yankees, a team that is typically trying to contend for a championship every year, that makes sense. There's tangible risk for a contending team when looking for potential bargain alternatives, when the downside is being stuck with an ineffective player who hurts the team's World Series odds. Yet now that the Yankees have seemingly admitted to themselves that rebuilding can be permissible, they may have opened themselves up to a new strategy.
New York could pull a page out of rebuilding teams' playbooks and try to find value with a one-year flyer on a veteran. Multiple teams did this last offseason. The A's were rewarded handsomely when they signed Hill to a one year, $6 million contract, and the Phillies found success in signing Jeremy Hellickson to a one-year, $7 million deal.
The logic behind those signings was clear. If the player performed well, the team had two options: keep him and enjoy the fruits of his labor all season, or trade him at the deadline as a valuable rental to a playoff team. If the player was bad, the risk was minimal on a one-year deal for a team that wasn't likely to be among the league’s top contenders.
The A's, after seeing Hill excel when healthy in the first half, were able to trade him, and Josh Reddick, for a hefty prospect return at the trade deadline. The Phillies curiously held on to Hellickson during a season in which he posted a 111 ERA+ and had value at the deadline, but even they may recoup draft pick compensation if Hellickson rejects the qualifying offer he was extended.
During an offseason where the Yankees don't profile as an elite team and don't have elite options to choose from on the free agent market, there may never be a better time for them to make a bargain play. There are plenty of veterans on the market that don't project for large salaries but do have at least some upside.
The names aren’t particularly alluring, but that’s to be expected. For example, Edinson Volquez, Andrew Cashner, RA Dickey, and Bartolo Colon all were pegged for just one year and $8-10 million by MLB Trade Rumors. At that price, such pitchers that have had success in the recent past could be worthwhile risks. All of them are certainly liable to simply perform poorly in 2017. However, if the Yankees did roll the dice and managed to hit on one, they would either have a useful player for the whole season, or a valuable trade commodity at the deadline, at the cost of just of what amounts to them as pocket change.
There is obviously risk, and if the Yankees try to fill a hole with a player who doesn't perform, the team will be worse. For every story like Hill's or Hellickson’s, there are players like Mat Latos or Doug Fister. Both took one-year deals last offseason, and both provided little to the teams that gambled on them.
Still, this isn’t an ordinary offseason for the Yankees. Their roster looks like it will place them right in the middle of the American League’s pile of mediocrity, and if the Steinbrenners refuse to stray from their newfound frugality, the Yankees will have no easy path to significantly upgrading the team. There has never been a time where it was more plausible for the Yankees try and catch lightning in a bottle in free agency.
Taking one-year flyers on veterans, with the intention of simply trading them if the team isn’t in contention, obviously isn’t a slam dunk strategy. If most of us had our druthers, the team would simply fully flex their financial might to fix their weaknesses. Yet if that isn’t realistic at the moment, now might be a rare opportunity for the Yankees to go bargain hunting.