The MLB trading deadline is 18 days away, so it’s a safe bet that fans of all stripes are being serenaded by analysts, pundits and perhaps even random bystanders with a time-honored baseball maxim: teams can’t have enough pitching.
The Yankees, being a baseball team, naturally can’t have enough pitching either, and speculation has already started to swirl about whom they might target on the trade market. But before Brian Cashman and company jump headlong into the trade pool, it’s worth considering if the best option to bolster their starting rotation is already in the organization.
I refer, of course, to Clarke Schmidt, the Yankees’ top pitching prospect currently assigned to the alternate camp in Scranton.
We’ll get back to Schmidt in just a bit, but first let’s survey the state of the Yankees starting staff. Gerrit Cole? Ace. Masahiro Tanaka? There’s never been a problem giving him the ball in a big spot and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. James Paxton? Rough start to the year, but showed promising signs in his last start that he can return to form and be a consistent producer. Jordan Montgomery? One truly bad outing, but otherwise pretty solid. J.A. Happ? Oh boy.
If there’s one slot in the rotation that the Yankees should be eager to upgrade, it’s Happ’s. In two outings so far, spanning just seven innings, Happ sports a 10.29 ERA and a 2.14 WHIP, with eight walks and just three strikeouts. He has truly been one of the worst pitchers in baseball to start the season, and it’s becoming more difficult for the Yankees to rationalize throwing him out there for regular starts. Indeed, they just skipped his last turn in the rotation.
These are, of course, insanely small samples, but it’s not hard to break down his struggles. He’s predominantly a fastball pitcher whose velocity has steadily, if not dramatically, declined over the years, currently sitting at 91.4 mph. As his stuff has diminished, so too has his ability (or willingness) to throw strikes. He’s located pitches in the strike zone just 42.2% of the time so far this year. Back in 2015 and 2016, that figure hovered around 50%. From 2017 to 2019, it was at 46.1%, 47.1%, and 45.8%, representing a general downward trend.
Pitching out of the zone can be great, if hitters chase, but they’re not anymore: his chase rate last year was 27.9%. So far this year, it’s just 19.2%. His walk rate has predictably skyrocketed and sits at 22.2%. Typically, it’s around 7%.
When he is in the strike zone, batters are teeing off, with a 56% hard contact rate. He’s also not missing bats, with his strikeout rate down dramatically (currently at 8.3%, down from 20.6% in 2019).
It’s not a pretty Statcast picture:
Okay, okay. It’s only a couple of bad starts. Happ could rebound in his next few outings and radically repaint this picture. Maybe. But let’s also consider his age (37) and the fact that he’s been steadily declining over the last couple seasons. If the Yankees are banking on Happ returning to the form that compelled them to trade for him in 2018 and then sign him to a new contract, they’re likely on a fool’s errand.
So the need is clear. But is the trade market the best way to go about filling it?
It remains to be seen, but the dynamics of this shortened season might make for rockier deal-making terrain. With an expanded playoff field and the fact that teams can only fall so far out of contention by the Aug. 31 deadline, clubs might be more reticent to move valuable pieces. Teams are also restricted to trading players on their expanded 60-player rosters. It won’t be impossible to match up franchise needs, but it will be more difficult.
There’s also the reality that pitcher health has seemingly never been more fragile. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh noted that, as of Aug. 3:
Although injuries to position players aren’t up from recent years, 2020’s total of 39 non-COVID-related pitcher IL stints since Opening Day is more than 50 percent higher than in any previous opening period, and the 2020 tally of 30 pitcher arm injuries is 150 percent higher than the record in any previous season’s opening stretch (12).
Given the potential challenges in this novel trade market and the inherent uncertainty surrounding pitcher health, it’s fair to question the wisdom of trading away franchise depth when internal options exist.
That leaves us with names like Schmidt, Mike King and Deivi Garcia, the latter of whom have the advantage of being on the 40-man roster. King has been somewhat promising in limited duty with the big club, though he’s appeared to run out of gas after two or three innings, resulting in lopsided performances and less-than-flattering overall numbers. Between both spring and summer camps, Garcia looked like he probably needs more development time (which is a shame, considering this is essentially a lost year for actual minor league play.)
Schmidt, on the other hand, was quite impressive in the spring and during summer camp, boasting the raw stuff and swagger that a successful MLB pitcher needs.
Clarke Schmidt is absolutely disgusting. pic.twitter.com/AoHpM1Qwr7— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 27, 2020
Giving him a look this season will have benefits beyond this season as well. The Yankees are going to be in a position next year where just Cole, an injured Luis Severino and Montgomery are under contract, so it’ll be quite useful to gauge whether the 24-year-old is truly ready to step into the rotation and assume one of those rotation slots.
It’s difficult to fully ascertain his current level of readiness, with no game action outside the spring and summer camp outings to pore over. But all indications are that he has the poise and polish to carry the load.
It’s time to let him try.