Stop me if you’ve heard this before; the Yankees need some depth in the rotation. With Luis Severino recovering from rotator cuff inflammation and CC Sabathia coming back from angioplasty, two starting spots are currently vacated to begin the 2019 season.
Candidates exist both externally and internally, but in keeping with the rest of the universe, all have their warts. At this point, the best starter on the market is pretty clearly Dallas Keuchel, who is coming off of a 200-plus innings pitched, 3.69-FIP, 3.6-fWAR campaign.
The former Houston ace has declined in several areas, though, most worryingly his rising walk rate and decreasing O-Swing rate. Combined with his age, teams appear to be concerned as to whether his performance will hold up over the course of the multi-year contract he is still seeking. Given the Yankees’ recent financial restraint concerning post-peak free agents, I’m not sure he fits into their modus operandi.
Gio Gonzalez has been mentioned as another potential acquisition. He’d come cheaper and on fewer years than Keuchel, with a reputation for providing innings in bulk. Yet, Gonzalez is also a pitcher in decline, as his strikeout and walk numbers are heading in the wrong direction in accordance with his diminished velocity and stuff. The cliff could be coming very soon for Gonzalez, which is a pretty disconcerting thing to say about a depth piece.
Meanwhile, none of the Yankees’ internal options seem like no-brainers, either. Jonathan Loaisiga and Domingo German showed impressive potential last year but ultimately proved not quite ready to handle a rotation spot. The main issue with Loaisiga is durability, as shoulder problems have plagued him throughout his career. Sure, he may shine given the chance, but what happens when he gets hurt and neither Sevy nor Sabathia aren’t ready to return?
German, though more durable than Loaisiga, is also enigmatic, as he was hit extremely hard despite possessing wipeout stuff. He still has considerable upside, but can the Yankees really afford to let him work things out at the big-league level? I’d hope the team’s brass learned their lesson last August.
Finally, Luis Cessa’s stock has risen as a result of his excellent spring training numbers. Tom identified some changes Cessa made last year which may have led to improved peripherals, and possibly are driving his strong spring. Yet, this is still Luis Cessa we’re talking about, and a 3.74 FIP over 44.2 innings in 2018 and an impressive Grapefruit League campaign does not make up for all that’s come before. I’m not so sure that “Luis Cessa, fifth starter” is the best option to start the year for a team serious about winning the division.
So, the non-Keuchel options aren’t really appealing, and Keuchel probably isn’t happening. Fortunately, there is one option on the trade market that could fit the Yankees’ needs. That option is Mike Leake of the Seattle Mariners.
Leake, a 31-year old right-hander, has made a name for himself as a not-too-good, not-too-bad mid-rotation starter over his nine-year MLB career. Here are his fWAR totals for the past five years: 2.3, 1.6, 2.5, 3.1, and 2.3. He’s made more than 30 starts and pitched over 170 innings in each of those years. That’s Leake in a nutshell; a guy who provides average-ish innings in bulk.
Leake doesn’t have a blazing fastball or a sexy strikeout rate - if he did, he’d be better. What Leake does have is one of the lowest walk rates in the game, along with an assortment of breaking/offspeed pitches that he attacks the zone with. Leake’s slider, previously his best pitch, took a step back in 2018. However, his cutter, changeup, and knucklecurve all improved, allowing Leake to maintain his established level of performance. There’s nothing about his profile which suggests a breakout is due, but there’s no sign of a breakdown, either. Leake is who he is, and teams who own him know what they’re getting from him.
Leake’s current employer, the Seattle Mariners, have little use for a league-average innings eater, as they aren’t projected to factor into the playoff race. Leake’s surprisingly large salary - he’s set to receive 16 million dollars in 2019 and 15 million in 2020, the final two years of his current contract - is also a hindrance to a reloading club. I’d wager to say that Jerry DiPoto would be more than willing to move Leake.
The Yankees’ farm system is not what it once was, but there are still enough lottery tickets in the lower levels to entice a team in Seattle’s position. And really, as a well-compensated backend starter, Leake shouldn’t cost much. Depending on how much of Leake’s salary the Yankees are willing to eat (and given that Cot’s Contracts lists the Yankees over $20 million below the highest CBT threshold, they should be willing to eat a lot), they could get Leake for next to nothing.
I understand that Mike Leake is more boring than Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga. If it were a sure thing that Severino and Sabathia would return in April, I would be more partial to giving the internal options a chance. But we don’t yet know what’s going to happen. Instead of answering questions with more question marks, it behooves the Yankees to secure a known entity like Leake.