This coming offseason, the Yankees will be faced with major decisions when it comes to retaining their free agents to-be. James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and DJ LeMahieu will all enter free agency at the end of the 2020 season. Barring injury, these three players will command significant contracts, and the Yankees will be looking to evaluate internal candidates as potential replacements should any of the trio depart.
After an up and down start to his season James Paxton showed down the stretch that he has the potential to be the top of the rotation arm that the Yankees were seeking when they traded for him. Posting a 2.51 ERA over his last 11 starts to the regular season, he helped the Yankees go 11-0 in those games. He has flashed this potential in the past while pitching in Seattle, and he is not a piece that can be replaced easily.
One part of Paxton’s game that is lacking is his durability. When healthy, he can work deep into his starts, but he has only pitched over 150 innings twice in his seven-year major league career.
Also potentially on his way out is Masahiro Tananka, who has produced a 16.8 bWAR over his first six seasons with the Yankees. He has proven to be very durable, only throwing fewer than 150 innings once in those six years, and that was during his rookie season. Tanaka’s regular season resume only tells part of the story, as he has been an ace in the biggest games. When October rolls around Tanaka has a 1.76 ERA with a 0.782 WHIP in eight career playoff starts.
Potentially replacing 40% of the rotation is a daunting through for a Yankees team that is built to win right now. Impressing scouts this season is Clarke Schmidt, generally considered one of the Yankees’ top three prospects. Schmidt finished strong with Double-A Trenton last season and has impressed during spring training and into the early part of summer camp. He is not yet part of the 40-man roster, but has made a strong case to break camp with the Yankees’ initial 30-man roster.
Schmidt entered the Yankees system in 2017 on the heels of Tommy John surgery. He has built his durability back up but still maxed out at just 90.2 innings last season. The shortened 2020 season will put a slight wrinkle into his plans, but he should see plenty of game or simulated game action as the Yankees handle his workload with both an eye on the present and future.
Flying under the radar for most of the 2019 season was right-handed pitcher Miguel Yajure. Pitching mostly for High-A Tampa he put together a season that saw him named the Yankees minor league pitcher of the year.
On the season, Yajure posted a 2.14 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP over 138.2 innings. That workload would allow Yajure and the Yankees to feel comfortable with him over a long season. He also produced groundballs over 50% of the time and has embraced the pitching lab mentality of pitching coach Matt Blake and Yankees’ system-wide pitching coordinator Sam Briend.
Schmidt and Yajure will not be the only options available to the Yankees early next year. Luis Severino should return early on in the 2021 season from Tommy John surgery. Top prospect Deivi Garcia will have his say in claiming a rotation spot but will certainly face questions about his ability to pitch a full major league season in the starting rotation.
With a farm system list full of pitching prospects, it is easier to envision an internal replacement for a pitcher than it is for DJ LeMahieu. The Yankees have five middle infielders listed among their top 30 prospects, but none of them have played a game above Low-A Charleston.
Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade are the top internal options currently on the 40-man roster. Yankees fans have grown frustrated with Wade over the last three seasons as he has failed during his opportunities at the major league level. He is coming off his best run of sustained success by hitting .289/.347/.533 over his last 23 games in 2019. Wade’s speed and versatile glove can get him on the field, but he will have to show that he can hit consistently to make the Yankees think about giving him a full-time job.
The more likely internal candidate to take hold at second base is Thairo Estrada. After hitting just 18 home runs over his first six minor league seasons, Estrada showed some pop last year, hitting 11 home runs in just 95 games between the Yankees and Triple-A Scranton. Early on in summer camp he has connected for a few more, and is showing that there may be more pop than meets the eyes.
Long known for his advanced hit tool, Estrada may be seeing a boost with the current baseball that rewards some contact hitters with more power. He has moved past a gunshot wound suffered in Venezuela just prior to the 2018 season, and will be looking to capitalize on all the skills he showed prior to the injury.
The Yankees have three key pieces of their team heading into free agency this year. Behind each player is a young player or prospect who is looking to gain a foothold with the organization. With expanded rosters and isolated taxi squads to start the 2020 season, these players may get the chance to show the Yankees they can contribute next season.