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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: José Ureña

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If the Yankees become desperate for arms to fill out their rotation, Ureña is one name they could look into.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Yankees’ current projected starting rotation consists of Gerrit Cole, Domingo Germán, Jordan Montgomery, Deivi García, and Clarke Schmidt. I hate to break it to you, but that is not going to last for a full length season. At this point, the Yankees need lukewarm bodies just to soak up some innings. And should they find themselves shopping in the lukewarm body aisle, they may come across José Ureña.

If you’ve been following the storylines around the league over the last few years, you may recognize Ureña as the villain in the Ronald Acuña Jr. hit-by-pitch saga. It all started in 2018, when Acuña was just beginning to break out into superstar status. He launched leadoff home runs in the first three games of a four-game set against the Marlins, and was promptly plunked by Ureña on the first pitch of the fourth game — a 97 mph fastball that happened to be Ureña’s hardest pitch thrown that whole season.

Ureña was ejected from the game, and this kicked off a series of Acuña getting revenge by going deep, and the Marlins retaliating by throwing at him. They subsequently beaned him three more times in future games, the latest iteration having occurred in this year’s NLDS, more than TWO YEARS after the initial incident.

I digress; back to the player at hand. Despite his propensity for hitting batters — leading the NL in that category in 2017 and 2018 — Ureña has some intriguing qualities should the Yankees go searching around the bargain bin. He was the Marlins’ most effective starter in 2017 and 2018, averaging a 3.90 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 4.80 xFIP, 122 strikeouts, and just over 170 innings pitched per season.

Ureña’s 95.6 mph average fastball velocity places him comfortably in the top 20 percent in the league. He has sat in the top-half of among all starters since 2015 in hard hit rate and the 70th percentile in groundball rate. Nothing spectacular, but still better than three of the projected Yankees starters.

Results have been markedly less encouraging over the past two seasons, pitching to a 5.25 ERA, 5.02 FIP, and 4.90 xFIP though that has as much to do with time missed as anything. Ureña missed over half of 2019 with a herniated disc, before which he was pitching quite serviceably, and was unavailable for the majority of the 2020 season after testing positive for COVID-19.

Obviously there are a bunch of reservations about penciling this guy into the starting rotation, not least of which is the rather large gap between his ERA and his FIP/xFIP in his most successful years. Such a trend would seem to suggest that he was pitching above his weight those years, and there is a good explanation for why. He walks batters at a near-league average rate, but does not balance that with good strikeout numbers, consistently sitting in the bottom quartile of the league in strikeout rate. High walks with low strikeouts is the kiss of death when it comes to FIP and xFIP.

I wondered why he was so bad in the swing-and-miss department, especially considering his elite fastball appeared to hint that he possessed plus raw stuff. Well it turns out the fastball is about the only pitch he throws well. Ureña’s main secondary pitch, the slider, spins more than 400 rpm less than the game’s elite, and this results in well-below-average vertical and horizontal movement.

This lack of a wipeout pitch is why his K-BB% is concerningly low, and is compounded by his occasional loss of the zone. He regularly finishes worse than league average in contact rate on pitches both in and out of the zone. This is exacerbated by his below average zone rate, first pitch strike rate, and swinging strike rate. He just can’t get batters to whiff.

So why on Earth would the Yankees be interested in this guy? First off, beggars can’t be choosers, and should the Yankees re-sign DJ LeMahieu while still consigning themselves to get under the CBT threshold, they may only have money left for pitchers of Ureña’s ilk. The Marlins non-tendered him to avoid paying the predicted $4 million he might have earned in his final year of arbitration, so it’s not impossible to think he could be signed for less, if not on a minor-league deal. So from a cost standpoint, there is minimal risk.

Ureña would also be an interesting project for Sam Briend and Matt Blake. If they can help him reshape his slider into an even average offering — something Blake excelled at in his time with the Cleveland Baseball Team — I think we could see the whiffs and strikeouts start to tick up. In any case, while he will likely never offer a high ceiling, José Ureña nonetheless merits some consideration as a low-risk, buy-low candidate to prop up the Yankees rotation.

UPDATE

Welp. Never mind then.