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Why this year’s free-agent market is actually risky for the Yankees

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The Yankees would incur a greater risk by passing on pitching this winter than by dipping their toes in the free-agent waters.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

After years of bemoaning the curse of old ballplayers on ugly, albatross contracts, teams, owners, and executives have finally convinced fans to view risk in much the same way they do, in terms of dollars instead of wins. Fans don’t just ask whether a new trade or free-agent acquisition is likely to make their team better, but whether said player is worth the financial risk. Sure, Manny Machado and Patrick Corbin would make the team better right now, but is that worth the potential long-term liability?

That line of thinking shifts the topic of conversation away from what really should matter to fans and analysts: how good the baseball players are at baseball. When staying under some arbitrary luxury tax line replaces—or at least saddles alongside—winning baseball games as the primary goal, the extent to which a player could help a team win games almost feels secondary to the extent to which that player would hurt the team’s financial bottom line. And that brings me to this year’s free-agent market.

In contrast to last year’s class, which featured a few young stars on the hitting side, this year’s class appears deepest on the pitching side. That would seem like a boon for New York, given their primary weakness heading into the winter is widely considered to be starting pitching.

I don’t need to reiterate Gerrit Cole’s and Stephen Strasburg’s bona fides. In a second tier, Zack Wheeler, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Madison Bumgarner also look attractive as backup options. There’s depth even further down, in the form of Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel, Kyle Gibson, and Cole Hamels.

I’m not really here to lobby for the Bombers to throw blank checks at Cole and Strasburg. I’d rather point out that just as a long-term deal for any of these hurlers could reasonably be termed as a “risk”, failing to secure any starter in his prime this winter comes with genuine performance risk for the Yankees, thanks to a starting rotation that is perilously thin past 2020.

Consider the team’s 2020 staff. Luis Severino looks nice and secure at the top, signed to an extension through 2023 at the latest. Beyond Severino, there is nothing resembling security. Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton can hit free agency after next season. J.A. Happ will as well should his 2021 vesting option fail to hit (he’d need to rack up 165 innings or 27 starts). That potentially leaves Severino as the only dependable starter under major-league contract past 2020.

The Yankees do have a few young options of some interest. Deivi Garcia obviously excited us all with his rise this year, and he could figure into the team’s plans as early as next year; Jordan Montgomery deserves a shot to regain his solid mid-rotation form from 2017; Jonathan Loaisiga’s stuff looks great when he’s not injured or handing out bases on balls like hot cakes.

Does a future rotation that relies heavily on the unproven likes of Garcia and Loaisiga, and asks Chance Adams and Michael King to provide depth, really sound like less of a risk than signing a major-league free agent? The words “Jonny Loaisiga, 2021 number three starter”, or “Michael King, number four starter” should sound less risky to you than “Gerrit Cole for seven years” if and only if you’re in the business of going to the mat for Hal Steinbrenner’s wallet.

If you’re in the business of evaluating the Yankees’ chances to win while this current championship window is wide open, then the picture becomes much clearer. Signing a starter that profiles as highly likely to contribute for the next few seasons considerably raises the rotation’s floor. Giving Severino a capable running mate for 2021 and beyond is much less risky than asking the Yankees’ in-house options to do the same.

It’s that simple. Asking for the world from Loaisiga, Garcia, and the like is quantifiably riskier than signing a pitcher if what matters to you is winning baseball games. How quantifiable? Before the season, FanGraphs’ long-term projections forecasted Loaisiga’s 2020 at 78 innings with a 4.14 ERA. Garcia currently projects for a 5.11 ERA per Steamer.

At time of writing, Steamer pegs Strasburg for a 3.54 ERA in 200 innings and Cole for a 3.01 ERA in 200 innings. Steamer puts Wheeler and Bumgarner somewhat below 200 innings at ERA figures just north of four. Again, a world in which that sounds riskier than penciling in Clarke Schmidt or some other very-much-can-miss prospect for a rotation spot is a world in which the bottom line means dollars and cents, not wins and losses.

Sure, none of these free-agent arms are sure things, and as will certainly be pointed out when any of them sign, they all could leave their new teams footing the bill for an expensive, declining player sometime in the future. It also turns out that the Yankees’ options past next season are much, much further from sure things. For New York, the clear risk this winter is avoiding the free-agent market as if they’re up to the neck with young, in-house pitching studs. We can only hope they don’t make an unforced error.