The Yankees have rightly prioritized upgrading the starting rotation this winter. General Manager Brian Cashman is undoubtedly exploring deals with every top starter on the free-agent market, but unfortunately, no proven ace exists among their ranks.
J.A. Happ pitched exceptionally well for the Yankees after they acquired him at the end of July, and was a big reason they were able to nail down the top Wild Card berth. Overall, Happ produced 3.3 WAR last season, after having reached a career-high 4.5 in 2016 and 3.6 the following year. While he would almost certainly represent a bottom-of-the-rotation upgrade over the woeful Sonny Gray, Happ has never been a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher, and it is unrealistic to expect him to suddenly become one at 36 years old.
Patrick Corbin compiled a career-high 4.6 WAR in 2018, and is considered the top available free-agent starter. Although he out-pitched Masahiro Tanaka (2.9 WAR), CC Sabathia (2.3), Gray (-0.1), and Happ, Corbin still fell well short of Cy Young Award candidates Aaron Nola (10.5), Jacob deGrom (9.6), and Max Scherzer (8.8). The Yankees could sign Corbin and hope the 29-year-old develops into an ace, but it’s unreasonable to expect that to happen. He is more likely a mid-rotation option.
I previously wrote about the elite arms that could be available via trade, including deGrom, Scherzer, and Zack Greinke. Since then, the Cleveland Indians emerged as sellers, which means that two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber is now on the trade block.
Cashman should spare no expense in order to acquire one of these aces, even if it means parting with the organization’s top prospects. The Yankees have already graduated an impressively high number of elite talents from their minor-league system over the last three years, and have consequently become one of the top teams in all of baseball. The Yankees are in “win now” mode and should act accordingly. This is not the time for prospect hugging.
Although the Yankees farm system isn’t as strong as it was in recent years due to high graduation rates and trades, the organization still boasts four prospects among MLB Pipeline’s top 100. Left-hander Justus Sheffield leads the parade at number 31, followed by outfielder Estevan Florial (ranked 45), and right-handers Jonathan Loaisiga (66) and Albert Abreu (85). Add to that group Clint Frazier (who exceeded his rookie eligibility and is therefore technically disallowed from being listed as a top prospect), and the Yankees have the makings of a competitive package to offer potential trade partners in exchange for an elite starter.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the club’s homegrown prospects blossom into major-league stars, and would like to see that trend continue. On the other hand, I know there is no real path for that to happen with the top prospects currently in the team’s pipeline.
None of the pitchers listed will make the rotation out of spring training and subsequently be allowed to pitch every fifth day all season long — while getting lit up as young pitchers usually do — so that they can gradually develop into a serviceable big-league starter two or three years down the road. At best, these hurlers might see occasional opportunities as spot starters or bullpen depth.
Florial and Frazier have Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury ahead of them on the outfield depth chart. The pair would likely only make the 25-man roster as injury replacements.
All of these talented prospects are slated to wait in the wings for an opportunity that may never come. At this time, they are most valuable to the team as trade chips. Cashman should maximize that value if trade opportunities arise that will help the club now, particularly if it enables New York to acquire an ace starter.
The Yankees were only a couple of clutch hits away from beating Boston in the Division Series, but better starting pitching might have made those additional runs unnecessary. Having emerged as a legitimate championship contender the last two seasons, a markedly improved rotation may very well prove decisive for the Yankees in 2019. The team missed many opportunities to land an ace in the recent past, but the front office should spare no expense to put an elite starter in pinstripes this winter.