Last week, I opined here that James Paxton made a ton of sense for the Yankees as a trade target. Apparently, Brian Cashman agreed, as he shipped out a trio of prospects to bring in the 30-year-old southpaw affectionately known as Big Maple. The headliner going back to the Mariners, Justus Sheffield, is a good prospect, but one that is easy to yield given Paxton’s obvious talents and the Yankees’ need in the rotation.
The big question, now, is just how good the Yankees’ staff is with Paxton in the fold. I also wrote last week about how the Yankees’ roster stacked up against the league’s best heading into the winter, and how even without having added any major external talent, the Yankees looked to be in prime position as the offseason began. As it stands to reason, Paxton’s addition should help push the Yankees’ rotation and staff as a whole towards the top of the heap.
In fact, in a matter weeks, depending on how the hot stove plays out, the Yankees may very well sport the league’s best pitching staff. This may sound outlandish to those who saw the Yankees’ staff struggle at times down the stretch last year, with Luis Severino faltering, Sonny Gray imploding, and replacements like Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga unable to stop the bleeding. Yet as the offseason begins, the Yankees have a chance to head into 2019 with one of, if not the, best staffs in the game.
Adding Paxton to a rotation that already includes Severino and Masahiro Tanaka gives the Yankees a trio of starters with ace-potential. I’ve linked to this leaderboard before, and I’ll do it again, because I think it’s telling: among starters with at least 150 innings the past two seasons, Paxton’s wOBA allowed of .276 ranks 10th. Severino slots just one point behind with a .277 wOBA. Paxton and Severino, in terms of suppressing overall offense, have each been among the game’s best dozen starters the past two years.
Tanaka lags a bit behind those two, and in truth, it might be a stretch to say he has ace-potential, as Tanaka hasn’t played like an ace for a full season since 2016. Still, it’s hard to find a better third starter in the league than Tanaka. The only rotations in the league that can sport a third starter as good as Tanaka are probably the Dodgers, with Walker Buehler/Hyun-Jin Ryu (whoever you slot in third), and Cleveland, with Carlos Carrasco/Trevor Bauer.
Even though the Yankees certainly are not done adding to either their rotation or their bullpen, that trio at the top of the rotation, as well as their dynamite late-inning arms Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Chad Green, already gives the Yankees an elite pitching staff. Here’s a snapshot of 2019 projected pitching WAR, thanks to FanGraphs’ early steamer projections:
FanGraphs 2019 Pitching Projections
It’s early in the offseason, and projections are merely a baseline, far from the be-all-end-all. Still, it’s highly encouraging to see that the Yankees, after just one major move, project better than every staff in the league outside of Cleveland (and who knows if Cleveland will resist the urge to dismantle its own tremendous rotation).
The best news might be that the Yankees will likely continue to add from here, especially with a suspiciously Patrick Corbin-sized hole remaining in their rotation. The Yankees only have four dependable major league starters on the roster right now, and with so much smoke surrounding the Yankees and Corbin, it seems likely the Yankees will bring in at least one more pitcher, whether it’s the free agent lefty, or someone else on the free agent or trade market.
If we simply suppose that where there’s smoke, there’s fire with Corbin, then the Yankees might just enter 2019 with the best projected staff. Steamer currently pegs Corbin as the 17th-best starter in the majors for next year with close to 4 WAR. Adding a pitcher of that caliber to the Yankees’ staff would likely would vault them to the top of the projections.
There’s no trophy for “best-projected pitching staff”, and even if the Yankees do have the best pitching forecasts in the league, they will still have to go out and actually pitch. Even so, what seemed to be a weakness at times last season is very quickly morphing into a huge strength. The Yankees have every opportunity to put together an elite run prevention unit heading into next season. They flexed their prospect muscle to bring in Paxton, and that has elevated the staff. Now, a little financial flex is all it would take to push the group over the top.