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The Yankees shouldn’t settle in free agency

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It’s time to open up the check book for a top-flight starter.

MLB: General Managers Meetings Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have to address their starting rotation this offseason. Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka are the only sure things on the roster, but thankfully they can land another sure-thing in free agency. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg loom large on the open market, and without question, they are the most-talented pitchers available anywhere this year.

The Yankees will still look in other places for pitching talent. Earlier this week, Brian Cashman mentioned he’d engage with both the powerful righties this offseason. The GM also told the San Francisco Chronicle he’d check-in Madison Bumgarner too. These official statements have accompanied speculation of who else the Yankees might target.

It never hurts to check-in on an extra arm, but the talent-gap between Cole and Strasburg and the rest of the field is too large to make any other pitcher a top target this offseason. The Yankees have been wildly successful the last three seasons, but they’ve yet to even appear in the World Series. On some level, the playoffs are a crapshoot, sure, but it’s time for the Yankees to leave as little up to chance as possible. A direct solution to this problem exists in the form of signing Cole or Strasburg.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler, and Madison Bumgarner sit comfortably in the second tier of available arms. Each of them comes with a unique set of concerns that should give the Yankees pause this offseason, however.

The Yankees have been connected to Wheeler and Bumgarner quite a bit in the past. Both names got thrown around during the trade deadline, and now the Yankees have an open shot at these arms. I’m not so sure either one is totally worth it though.

Madison Bumgarner’s prime is over. There’s no doubt he was great in his playoff runs with the Giants. I’m not disputing that, but his effectiveness has declined almost-steadily the last few seasons, and he’s simply not “the guy” anymore. In some ways, 2019 was something of a bounceback year. He threw over 200 innings and improved his strikeout and walk rates from 2018, but most concerning, his batted ball profile trended downward into scary territory. His Hard Hit percentage and Exit Velocity put him in the 10th and 14th percentile of the league, respectively. This and a 17.4 degree launch angle in 2019 might’ve played in the spacious Oracle Park but is simply untenable in Yankee Stadium. Here’s a look:

Baseball Savant

There’s a lot to like in Wheeler’s Statcast profile. His spin rates and velocity are great. He’s better than league average in several statistical categories too, but in others, he’s about league average. His ERA+ in 2019 was just 102 in 2019, and he’s by no means the strikeout artist that Cole or Strasburg are. Here’s a look:

FanGraphs

Wheeler’s stuff leads me to believe he could be better than he’s shown previously, but that makes him a bit of a fixer-upper. There’s value in fixing something, but other times it’s just easier to buy something new.

Ryu has had the most success of these three the past two seasons. He was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award and the NL leader in ERA this season. However, there’s reason to believe he might not be as dominant moving forward. The stats indicate he’s bound for some regression and injuries have held Ryu back for much of his career. He missed nearly half the 2018 season with a groin injury and was limited to just 126.2 innings the year prior. At age-33, he’s also the oldest of all the pitchers.

The second tier of free agents just don’t live up to the same standard as Strasburg and Cole. The Yankees could also engage the trade market for a rotation upgrade, but giving up talent to acquire a pitcher seems odd when two of the league’s top-10 pitchers cost only money.

Of course, this means the Yankees will have to pay either Strasburg or Cole, and they absolutely should. The Yankees have gotten close to their ultimate goal for a few seasons in a row now without paying big for a starter. They could win a title still without Cole or Strasburg too. But how might any one of the last three years have gone if they Yankees already had Cole or Strasburg-type talent in their rotation?

The Yankees are going to pay for talent at some point this offseason, whether through free agency or through a trade. If the Yankees truly want to live up to their “championship or bust” mindset, they can take a concrete step towards their ultimate goal if they shell out a little bit extra for a top-tier pitcher. And according to CC Sabathia, money might be all it takes. On a recent podcast, he said of Gerrit Cole, “if [the Yankees] give [him] enough money, he’s going to want to come here. I’m speaking from experience. You offer him enough money he’ll pitch on the moon.” It’s time for Brian Cashman to open up the check book.