It’s late January, which means that the winter is technically long from over. Spring training games don’t start for over a month, and the regular season stands two months away. Several impact free agents sit out on a cold market. Dominos stand waiting to fall.
The Yankees, however, apparently entered this winter not with acquiring players as the top priority, but instead, ducking the luxury tax. After last week’s moves, they fall just a few million beneath the first threshold ($210 million). In that sense, the team may have packed an entire offseason into a single day. Weeks remain before Opening Day, but until the Yankees actually crack open their wallet for more than maintaining the status quo, they’re all but out of chances to make significant additions.
Keeping in mind that things could still change, let’s take stock of what’s happened, particularly with regard to the team’s pitching. The Yankees have let J.A. Happ go, and will do the same with Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton unless they suddenly decide to stop treating the luxury tax like a death trap. The only replacement they’ve signed is Corey Kluber, despite the looming prospect of letting three-fifths of a rotation waltz out the door.
In my eyes, the Yankees have absolutely skimped on their rotation. Tanaka, Paxton, and Happ combined to earn over $52.5 million in 2020. Should all three depart, the Yankees will have cut over $40 million of salary year-over-year by just swapping in Kluber. Almost the entirety of the Yankees’ overall payroll slash stems from letting pitching slip away, at a time when many observers would agree pitching depth looks like the Yankees’ main weakness.
I’ve argued repeatedly that the trivial tax benefits the Yankees will enjoy pale in comparison to the hurt they’ll do to their roster by ducking the tax. The Yankees’ moves this winter paint a clear picture of a team that would rather bolster its profit margins a bit rather than push to win as many games as they can in 2021. In a vacuum, I have no problem calling the Yankees’ work to address their rotation — at least thus far — wholly inadequate for a team that can win a championship right now.
However, in the context of a team that is dead set on cutting costs and maximizing profits, the story is different. If there really is no budging Hal Steinbrenner, no way to force him to exchange more money for more winning, I’d argue that the way the Yankees have operated this winter is close to optimal. It’s a bleak perspective, but if the Yankees are going to skimp on their rotation, well, this is the way to do it.
What the Yankees have done within the confines of their maddening austerity measures is swing for the fences. The team appears content to spend just $11 million to address their pitching problems. If that’s all they’ll allow themselves, it’s much preferable to spend that paltry amount on potential, rather than using the same amount of money on fungible fifth starters who can provide innings but little else.
The standard line around these parts is that the Yankees’ rotation consists of Gerrit Cole and a bunch of question marks. It’s the standard because it’s true. There’s no telling exactly how the pitchers behind Cole will perform. But hidden within all that risk is upside. Kluber, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Luis Severino are question marks because they might be bad, but also because they could be great.
In siding with uncertainty, the Yankees have allowed for the possibility that their non-Cole pitchers will show out. As Josh outlined earlier this week, there’s legitimate reason for optimism that Kluber can return to some semblance of his previous form. A Kluber who assumes even 85-percent of his prior peak is an excellent second starter.
Same goes for Severino. No one knows what to expect from the team’s erstwhile ace, especially since it seems he won’t return until midseason. But again, if Severino even sniffs his previous heights, he immediately becomes the kind of player you can absolutely turn to in Game Two of a playoff series.
And that’s all we’re really asking for, isn’t it? The main problem we as fans had with the most recent edition of the Yankees was how they had no one to turn to after Cole. This was best demonstrated with Aaron Boone’s Game Two switcheroo in the ALDS. Boone’s gambit was strategically interesting, but it was telling that the New York Yankees had no one they could trust to start even the second game of the series, and had to resort to smoke and mirrors.
In prioritizing upside, rather than floor, the Yankees are hunting for someone to start that Game Two, and even Game Three. I’ve written previously that Deivi García might not be ready for a huge role in 2021. But what if I’m wrong? García is fantastically talented, showcasing a deceptive fastball and plus-plus breaker in his abbreviated debut, and recently ranking among Baseball Prospectus’ top 20 prospects in the world. In his first four career starts, García ran a 3.28 ERA and held opponents to a .614 OPS. If he can approach that for 30 starts, and he’s a stellar Game Three choice.
The likes of Schmidt, Domingo Germán, Jordan Montgomery, and the rest have narrower routes to front-line starter status. That said, Schmidt is a top-100 prospect, and has huge error bars in both directions. The Yankees can’t count on anything from Germán, but he’s shown his ceiling before. Montgomery is already a league-average third starter. There’s a nonzero chance that this group produces a high level starter.
This strategy, best described as “Kluber and the Kids,” could blow up in the Yankees’ faces. It can also yield a top-three in the rotation that could propel the Yankees to the World Series. Compare this to the alternative. With the amount the Yankees have allotted themselves, the kinds of depth starters they could have targeted would have provided essentially no shots at topline production.
The Yankees could have spent $11 million on Kluber and turned the rest of the rotation over to the kids, or they could have signed, like, Rick Porcello and Cole Hamels. Maybe Jon Lester and Martín Pérez. Perhaps Matt Moore, Anthony DeSclafani, and Adam Wainwright. All of these pitchers have marginally higher floors than Kluber, García, and Schmidt, but none of them possess any of the positive variance that the Yankees’ roster now has.
If the Yankees surprise us and add more contributors, this discussion will (thankfully) be rendered moot. The best that the Yankees can do is combine the upside they’ve assembled with quality depth. But with what they’ve decided to spend, the Yankees can’t afford quality depth. They have managed to give themselves upside. If those are the two paths, the Yankees have chosen the right one.