Much has been made of the somewhat underwhelming 2021 free agency class. Charlie Morton is moving up in years, you can’t count on James Paxton to be on the field, and Trevor Bauer is, well, Trevor Bauer. The Yankees need to bolster the starting rotation, that’s not in doubt, but what if they didn’t have to dabble in free agency? The best pitcher available might be one on the trade market, Pittsburgh’s Joe Musgrove.
Musgrove, who will be 28 on Opening Day, had developed a reputation as a guy who just couldn’t put it all together — good peripherals, especially around control and HR suppression — but unable to just stop runs from scoring against him. That largely changed in 2020, after he came off the IL for September and dominated the opposition, striking out a full third of batters he faced and allowing the weakest contact of any starter in baseball.
The biggest change for Musgrove was a familiar one for Yankee fans - working off the fastball and using the slider and curve more aggressively:
The curveball, especially, has become Musgrove’s bread and butter. He’s quadrupled its usage since being traded to the Pirates, seeing significant spin rate jumps each year as well. That usage doesn’t just happen in pitcher’s counts, either:
Here Musgrove starts an MVP candidate with a curveball, in the zone, that Jose Ramirez can’t do a thing with. Musgrove uses the curveball to open a count 29% of the time, one of the highest rates in the game:
In a lot of ways, Musgrove is Masahiro Tanaka, if he was four years younger and didn’t have a partially torn elbow ligament. The fastball isn’t particularly exciting, but as long as Musgrove keeps it down in the zone, it won’t hurt him. The breaking balls, particularly this curveball, become the primary weapons, and because Joe throws so many of them in every different count, hitters are unable to pick up on patterns or sit on a pitch.
The hitch with this idea is Musgrove’s value. He had an excellent 2020, is under team control for two more seasons, and the same age as Jordan Montgomery. The Pirates, meanwhile, just had the worst record in baseball, and are looking to gut the team (again), on the hunt for major rebuild pieces.
This could work to the Yankees advantage in that Pittsburgh isn’t looking for 2021 improvement — as in, Deivi Garcia’s projected wins might not be as valuable to the Pirates as it would be to other teams — but the Yankees’ system doesn’t boast much high-ceiling talent in the minors except for Jasson Dominguez. Fortunately, the Pirates have also shown a willingness to eschew top-line talent in favor of multiple high-floor pieces, which is exactly how Musgrove ended up in Pittsburgh, as part of the deal for Gerrit Cole.
Musgrove is expensive however you slice it, but his improvements are legit — spin rate isn’t something that’s luck or clouded by sample size. The Yankees need a complimentary piece to Gerrit Cole, one that won’t cost $25 million a year if they’re committed to staying below the competitive balance threshold. He’s the piece they need, and the only question is what they’re willing to give up for him.