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The Yankees still need a starting pitcher

Shipping Sonny Gray to Cincinnati diminishes New York’s rotation depth, and free agent southpaw Dallas Keuchel could fill the void.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees set a number of priorities at the start of the offseason. Improving the starting rotation and trading the under-performing Sonny Gray were at the top of the list. General Manager Brian Cashman deftly executed a trade with the Seattle Mariners to acquire left-handed standout James Paxton. He also re-signed veterans CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ to fill out the rotation. Yesterday, a deal to ship Gray to the Cincinnati Reds for prospects was completed.

Unfortunately, the decision to trade away Gray actually diminishes the Yankees’ starting pitching. Sure, Gray was mostly awful for the Yankees last season — especially at home. But he was an All-Star and Cy Young Award finalist just four years ago. He even had success at times with the Yankees, pitching well down the stretch in 2017. Gray still has high-level talent, talent which could have proven valuable as pitching depth going forward.

The Bronx brain trust could have figured out why Gray failed to perform up to his abilities in New York and remedied the situation, thus allowing the Bombers to benefit from his services in 2019. They chose not to.

As a result, the starting rotation right now consists of Paxton, Sabathia, Happ, Tanaka, and Luis Severino, but the depth beyond that is alarming. The likes of Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga have looked interesting in relief, but are far from sure things as starters. Chance Adams took a large step back last season. Jordan Montgomery should be back at some point in 2019, but it would be folly to rely on much from him coming off Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees haven’t had four pitchers record at least 25 starts in the past five seasons. Every team needs several extra starting pitchers regardless of who begins the year in their five-man rotation, and dealing Gray significantly weakens the Yankees’ depth.

Cashman showed interest in consensus top free agent starter Patrick Corbin, but reportedly was unwilling to offer the southpaw more than $100 million over five years. Corbin inked a six-year pact with Washington for $140 million.

Rumored trades for top-shelf starters like Corey Kluber and Noah Syndegaard never materialized, and the Yankees apparently weren’t all that interested in free agents like Charlie Morton, Yusei Kikuchi, and Bombers alum Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi re-signed with Boston for $67.5 million over four years, Kikuchi signed a four-year deal with Seattle for $56 million, and the Rays signed Morton to a two-year $30 million contract.

Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel is still available. The Yankees haven’t expressed any reported interest to date, but perhaps they should explore this option, now that Gray is gone.

Keuchel compiled 18.4 WAR over the last five years, which is more than anyone currently in the Yankees rotation. His production has fallen off in the last two years, but his 6.5 WAR from 2017-18 is still better than Sabathia (6.1) and Tanaka (4.0). In 2018, Keuchel (2.6 WAR) outperformed Sabathia (2.3 WAR) and was just a tick below Tanaka and Paxton (2.9 WAR apiece).

One could make the argument that the Yankees are better off with Sabathia in the rotation than Keuchel, but that’s not really the point. Barring something approaching a precedent-setting miracle, the Yankees are going to use at least six starters in 2019, and probably many more. Last year, they needed 12 starters, with 10 of them making at least four starts each. German (14), Lance Lynn (9), and Cessa (5) combined to start 28 games for the Bombers, and 2018 wasn’t an anomaly. Keeping five starters healthy and productive is annual challenge for every MLB team, the Yankees included.

As usual, the decision to sign Keuchel will likely come down to money. Earlier this winter, MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Keuchel would garner a four-year $82 million contract. The 31-year-old left-hander, represented by Scott Boras, reportedly seeks a five-year $100 million deal.

That’s where potential suitors have shied away, and that’s why Keuchel is still a free agent. Both the Phillies and Nationals were reportedly hotly pursuing Keuchel earlier this offseason, but their interest waned due to his contract demands. The Yankees weren’t willing to go six years for Corbin, but are they willing to go four or five for Keuchel?

A similar situation played out last winter with Jake Arrieta, who ultimately signed with Philadelphia after his contract demands dropped to three years. It’s easy to envision the same scenario happening this time around with Keuchel, and as competitors for his services solidify their rosters with other options, the Yankees can prepare to pounce. Keuchel has proven he can pitch big games in Yankee Stadium. That’s one thing the Yankees don’t have to worry about if they choose to pursue him.