The Yankees’ 2020-21 offseason has so far been defined by the club’s self-imposed budgetary restrictions. Through all the talk about negotiations with DJ LeMahieu, the buzz around starting pitching has seemingly calmed down. There has been almost no chatter about the Yankees having interest in bringing back Masahiro Tanaka, or signing a replacement should they let him walk.
This is alarming because the Yankees’ rotation wasn’t good enough last year, and — despite Brian Cashman’s apparent optimism — could stand to get worse if they don’t seriously pursue an upgrade. The team will likely choose to pursue cheap and relatively low-risk starters, which could lead to interest in Taijuan Walker.
A former top prospect in the Mariners’ system in the early 2010s, Walker has not quite lived up to that billing due to plenty of injuries over the years. He’s had shoulder, foot and elbow issues, including Tommy John surgery in 2018. However, when he’s been healthy, Walker has been a mid-rotation starter, which is just what the Yankees need right now.
Walker restored his value with a solid 2020 performance after two lost seasons following Tommy John surgery. He started with a second stint in Seattle, but finished as a Blue Jay, pitching key games down the stretch as their No. 3 starter. In six games with Toronto, he had a 1.37 ERA but did not get to pitch in the playoffs, as the Rays quickly dispatched the Blue Jays. His 4.14 FIP and 1.25 WHIP seem to suggest that he was pitching a bit better than expected and may have been the beneficiary of some small-sample size luck, but it was certainly the best we’d seen Walker perform in years, and right as he was hitting free agency.
At this point in Walker’s career, he is more of a kitchen-sink arm than a “stuff” guy. His four-seam fastball averages 93 mph, but he threw it less than ever in 2020. Instead, he mixed in a cutter, sinker and splitter at greater frequencies, along with a curveball functioning as his only true breaking ball. He did a decent job at limiting hard contact in 2020 – he has a high fly ball rate, but his home run rate is essentially league average. Of course, Walker’s strikeout and walk numbers also rank just around the middle of the pack among starters. He won't blow you away, but he can generally keep you in the game.
MLB Trade Rumors is projecting a two-year, $16 million contract for Walker. That wouldn’t break the bank, especially with $52.5 million in AAV coming off the books in the form of Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ. Someone has to replace those innings, and roughly $8 million a year for Walker could be a good value buy on someone who is familiar in the AL East and at age 28, still has decent odds of productive years ahead of him. The Yankees reportedly had interest in Walker at the 2020 trade deadline, so perhaps there’s still a match there.
The risk for the Yankees is banking on Walker’s health. He has never thrown 170 innings in a season, although last season was the healthiest he’d ever been. Furthermore, he has a generally low upside — with Walker, what you see is what you get. That could be intriguing for a Yankees team in need of more starting pitching depth, but he probably wouldn’t move the needle too much. Much like Garrett Richards, who we profiled a few weeks ago, Walker might make sense as a fourth starter, but if the Yankees were to sign him expecting more, they probably wouldn’t get it.