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Yankees Free Agent Target: Julio Teherán

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A check-up for the almost entirely absent Yankees starting rotation, and a budgetarily conscious minor patch-job.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Angels Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The only absolute certainty in the Yankees’ rotation going into 2021 is Gerrit Cole. James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka seem to be headed out of town via free agency. Deivi García has flashed promising moments, but at just 21 and without any supercharged fastball or offspeed offering, it remains unclear if he’s ready for the big time. Jordan Montgomery might be the closest to a sure thing to receive a steady slot in the five-man rotation, but even he’s been relatively inconsistent since his return from Tommy John surgery.

Although the Yankees will eventually reacquire former Cy Young finalist Luis Severino and short-lived success Domingo Germán, their abilities to contribute to winning baseball are still murky given their time away from the game (for dramatically divergent reasons). While the biggest free agency shoe (DJ LeMahieu) has yet to drop, the Yankees remain in perhaps even greater need of starting pitching.

This offseason, the Yankees seem intent on coming in under the competitive balance tax line, so as not to be hit with the increased repeat offender bill. After coming in just below the tax in 2018, they blew past it in ’19 and ’20, setting them up to pay a 50 percent tax on every dollar above $210 million in salary. As Jake outlined on Tuesday, the penalties are really not all that severe, but Hal Steinbrenner seems intent on avoiding them. So with about $30 million in room left under the tax right now, if the team decides to re-sign LeMahieu, they won’t have room for more than one plus-arm, even though realistically, they probably need two more MLB-caliber starters.

If the team decides to pursue that course of action, one potentially budget-friendly arm worth a gander is Julio Teherán. Once upon a time, Teherán was a teenage phenom, and considered to be one of the top prospects in the Braves’ system by Baseball America before having thrown a professional inning. Kevin Goldstein of ESPN wrote, “His combination of power stuff and advanced command gives him true ace potential, and he has struck out more than a man per inning in his minor league career.”

Teherán’s early career provided ammo for the more bullish projections. While he struggled over the course of his first 26 big league innings across his age 20 and 21 seasons, he found his stride in 2013 at 22, his first full big league season, and finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Between 2013 and ’16, Teherán threw nearly 800 innings, made two All-Star games, and posted a 115 ERA+.

Now, he’s coming off what is undeniably the worst season of his very solid decade-long career, where he recorded an ERA of 10.05 with the Angels, and finished in the bottom three percent of the league in strikeout rate. Although his “power” fastball never actually topped 93 mph on average over a full season, in 2020, it sat at a career-low 89.2 mph. Opposing batters popped his puss fastball to the tune of a 1.000 slugging and .572 wOBA. Though he threw it just about a quarter of the time, opposing batters hit six of the ten homers he allowed off of that particular pitch. Look at where in the zone those long balls came from.

High heat is only effective at generating swings and misses (or even bad contact) when it’s actually hot. Major league hitters earn their living by punishing mistakes like Teherán’s batting practice fastball up in the zone. 2020 was the first season in which Teherán threw his sinker more than the four-seam. In 2021, he probably needs to swap the four-seamer out entirely in favor of the sinker, a pitch that’s historically been his best, if he wants to maintain his big league viability.

If this is rock bottom — which it would almost certainly be impossible for it not to be — Teherán will at least benefit from some positive regression over the course of a 162-game season. He’s a proven workhorse, capable of eating innings at an elite level, as he’s started at least 30 games in every single full season of his career (except the shortened 2020). As recently as 2019, Teherán was a decent enough mid-rotation starter on a playoff team, notching a 3.81 ERA and 2.8 WAR with the Braves. A comeback to at least mediocrity would not be out of the question by any stretch of the imagination.

Teherán is not the best arm on the market, but he has undeniably and consistently been an arm, which is more than can be said for much of the Yankees’ current rotation. As a borderline fifth starter for under $2.5 million (and maybe even on a minor league deal), Julio Teherán fits with the Yankees’ current need of someone who can eat up a bunch of innings on the cheap — at least until Severino and German return to full strength, or they sign someone else.