The reaction to the Yankees passing on Patrick Corbin has been polarized, to say the least. One camp has expressed discontent about the Yankees not capitalizing on this chance to add top-flight talent to their rotation. The other camp has commended Brian Cashman for not matching the six-year, $141 million offer which brought Corbin to the Nationals, arguing that such a hefty contract for a pitcher without an established track record is an overpay.
I find myself in the former camp - I was seriously bummed when I found out the Yankees missed out on Corbin. Yet, I also agree with the latter camp on their assessment of the contract that Corbin got. Make no mistake, the Nationals’ offer was probably an overpay, and even if Corbin stays reasonably healthy for the duration of the pact, years five and six have the potential to be really ugly for the Nationals.
Even so, taking on that risk was a worthwhile endeavor for the Yankees this offseason. Not necessarily because Corbin will contend for the Cy Young for the next three years, but because the Yankees just don’t seem to have that many opportunities to add a pitcher with Corbin’s upside to the rotation in the near future.
As I see it, the argument against overpaying is based on the premise that there are/will be better and safer investments than Corbin available, and the Yankees would be better off saving their bullets for that guy. In a vacuum, that premise seems solid, as Corbin certainly has his own weaknesses. Ideally, he’d be three years younger, with a longer track record of success, no downward trends in velocity, no past injury issues, a killer Twitter account, likes pancakes more than waffles...the wish list goes on.
However, it’s important to remember that the Yankees don’t operate in a vacuum, and that the perfect pitcher doesn’t exist. Significant risk is attached to any big-name free agent signing. Looking at the other options facing the Yankees this year and the next, I’m not sure any of them are more attractive than Corbin.
Let’s start with this year’s free agent starting pitchers. With Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi gone, the field is topped by Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. The former Astros will certainly come cheaper than Corbin, but that’s because they have their own warts. Much like Corbin, Keuchel has only had one truly great year (2015), but he’s farther removed from it than Corbin is. I like Keuchel more than I do the rest of the free agent starters, but Corbin clearly has more upside going forward.
Meanwhile, Charlie Morton has been amazing on a per-inning basis for the past two years, but he’s only thrown about 300 of them in that time-frame. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s not the right fit for a team that needs more length out of their starters. Give me Corbin on a bad contract over Morton on a reasonable one every day.
Next year’s free agent class projects to be somewhat short of inspiring as well. That class will be headed by Justin Verlander, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner, which would have had me foaming at the mouth in 2016, but not so much in 2019-20. Verlander seems like a safe investment, but he will be 37 by that time. Sale will “only” be 31, but depending on what he does in 2019 he should earn much more than Corbin, with comparable risk (declining fastball velocity in September/October). Bumgarner is already into his decline now. It’s hard to see the top tier of next year’s FA class being more attractive than Corbin, even with the enormous contract he got.
Sure, the Yankees might find a way to address their starting pitching via trade. They don’t have the prospects to swing a deal for an ace, though, and would certainly have to give up major league talent and/or eat a bad contract to get elite talent. Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer might be possibilities this offseason, but it’s hard to see the Yankees getting either without giving up Miguel Andujar or Estevan Florial, or taking on Jason Kipnis’ albatross pact. I’m not really sure that’s all that preferable to getting Corbin just by spending money.
The Yankees’ decision to pass on Corbin may look smart in 2024, when the Nationals are probably going to be saddled with a past-his-prime and often hurt pitcher making $20+ million. But no one knows what the Yankees’ rotation will look like by that time, or what pitchers will be available in free agency. Maintaining flexibility is a good thing, but worrying about things so far in the future seems like a fool’s errand. Corbin was a risk, but it just seems like he was a risk that the Yankees should have taken. Opportunities to add that kind of upside for money don’t come along often. The Nationals might come to regret the Corbin signing years from now. The Yankees might regret not signing him next season.