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Five potential free agent reclamation projects for the Yankees

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These arms have their fair share of issues or health problems, but perhaps the new pitching coach and his fresh ideas can help turn things around.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be clear and get it out of the way right at the top: what the Yankees need the most is, at least, one high-profile, top-of-the-line starter. Period. They should go after Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg to help them get over the hump.

However, and especially in this era, each team needs between seven and nine starting pitchers to navigate through a season because of injuries, poor performance, suspensions, and other unforeseen circumstances.

The Yankees have a new pitching coach in place: his name is Matt Blake, and he already left his mark during a very successful tenure with the Cleveland Indians as an assistant director of player development. He is said to be excellent at applying advanced technology to absorb, understand, and impart baseball knowledge.

If the price is right, these are some “reclamation projects” that the Yankees can sign for the upcoming season, hoping that Blake and the rest of the staff can rekindle some of the magic that made them successful at some point.

Again, relying on any of these options would be far from ideal, but given the aforementioned scenarios and situations, the team may need an innings-eater starter from the free agent pool at any point in the long season.

Michael Wacha

Michael Wacha, now 28, is a former NLCS MVP that has lost nearly all the shine that made him a hot prospect back in the early part of the decade. But he may be worth “saving”, seeing that he was effective as recently as 2018, when he finished with a 3.20 ERA in 84.1 innings, to go along with a 3.1-fWAR season in 2017.

His contract-year 2019 wasn’t positive at all, given that he finished with a 4.76 ERA and an even worse 5.61 FIP. Not everything is negative: a 48.0 GB% and a 29.9 FB% bode well for the future.

His HR/FB suffered from the “juiced” ball, however. His 22.0% rate is far off his career 12.0% and the 13.6% mark he had in 2018.

He had a horrible -13.4 mark on his fastball according to FanGraphs’ pitch value, and a very good 9.8 figure on his changeup. Maybe the Yankees’ new pitching coach can help him improve the former and sharpen his lackluster breaking ball to capitalize on his excellent offspeed pitch.

Trevor Cahill

2019 wasn’t kind with Trevor Cahill, a talented yet extremely injury-prone hurler throughout his career. He had a 5.98 ERA in 102.1 frames with the Angels.

His Statcast profile doesn’t offer much to dream about, but one particular area stood out. Cahill had a 96th percentile curveball spin rate, which gives him a weapon to work with in the future. The right-hander was very successful as recently as 2018 and remains a viable reclamation project given that he may not even command a major-league deal.

In that 2018, he finished with a 3.76 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP in 110 innings. He has done it before: he needs health and maybe fresh ideas to see if he can do it again.

Felix Hernandez

The quintessential reclamation project, Felix Hernandez is no longer a king in the prime of his career. He is finished with the Mariners, but said he wasn’t retiring and hoped to land a job come spring training.

If he gets no major-league offers, maybe the Yankees should explore the idea of bringing him in on a minor-league pact. What’s there to lose? Perhaps a bright young mind like Blake could work wonders with Felix and return him to his 2016 level of performance, which still saw Hernandez put forth respectable mid-rotation numbers.

He did have a 2019 to forget, though (6.40 ERA in 15 starts), and has been bad for two years. The goal should be helping him turn back the clock a few years, but he is an “old” 33-year-old hurler with a lot of mileage on his right arm.

Even with his putrid season, he showed that he still has a couple of effective pitches in his slider and curveball. Conversely, his fastball was crushed.

Drew Smyly

Smyly was a highly useful starting pitcher from the start of his career up through 2015, but hasn’t been good since 2016. This season, he started with the Texas Rangers and stunk up the joint to the tune of a 8.42 ERA in 51.1 innings.

He was acquired by Philadelphia and had a really positive first few outings before fading down the stretch. Overall, he finished with a decent 4.45 ERA with the Phillies in 62.2 frames.

He has maintained a similar fastball velocity throughout his career even with all the injuries, which is different to what happened with Felix Hernandez and the five-plus mph drop on his heater from his earlier days. He doesn’t have the craftiness of the King, though, but all it could take is a one-year commitment in the $3 million range.

Jordan Lyles

Lyles had two very different seasons within one this year. With the Pirates, he pitched poorly, with a 5.36 ERA in 17 starts and 82.1 innings pitched. His 1.47 WHIP left a lot to be desired, but he found himself with the Milwaukee Brewers, a contending team, in the second half. There, he flourished and left a shiny 2.45 ERA in 11 starts and 58.2 frames.

Lyles’ problems can be explained by the lack of a reliable third pitch, which is backed by FanGraphs’ pitch value data. He had positive marks for his fastball and curveball, but his slider, cutter, and changeup were all negative.

The Brewers deployed him as a short starter, in the sense that he usually faced the lineup a maximum of two times. It was designed that way because his splits in his first and second time through the order (3.63 and 3.43 ERA, respectively) were significantly better than his third time through (7.23 ERA). Opposing lineups had him figured out after seeing him two times because he lacked a reliable third weapon.

The Yankees could either use him like the Brewers or help him make strides with one of the three negative pitchers. A one-year, $5-$6 million deal may be enough but perhaps a team is willing to go two years.