As much as the Yankees claimed that re-signing DJ LeMahieu was their top priority this winter, their actions have made their true goal clear: ducking the luxury tax. Every decision they’ve made, from seemingly letting three of their 2020 starting pitchers depart, to stretching LeMahieu’s guarantee as far into the future as possible, was made with the $210-million CBT threshold in mind.
The Yankees’ quest to duck the tax has been a self-imposed journey, a puzzle of their own making. There’s no rule that says they have to spend less than $210 million, only a rule that says spending more than that will cost them a few million bucks. There’s no rule that says the Yankees can’t spend $260 million of their $600 million-plus in revenues on player payroll. This entire offseason has been a Rubik’s Cube they’ve forced themselves to crack. In trading for Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon, the Yankees may have finally solved it.
The acquisition of Taillon has the Yankees doubling down on something I wrote about yesterday; slashing payroll but prioritizing upside in doing so. Adding Taillon, along with Corey Kluber, doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees still exclusively have question marks behind Gerrit Cole. It just means that all those question marks come with as much positive potential as negative.
As Josh Diemert pointed out in the Pinstripe Alley Slack room today, the Yankees’ big pitching additions combined to toss a grand total of one inning in 2020. Without question, this has major downside potential. Taillon, the blockbuster trade piece of the team’s winter, could give the Bombers literally nothing in 2021.
However, just as easily as it all could go wrong, it could all go right. The positive outcome for Taillon is that he follows a lower-stakes version of Cole’s path three years ago. After the 2017 season, the Pirates traded Cole, an uber-talented but still inconsistent right-hander, for a quartet of middling prospects. (The best of them, Joe Musgrove, was just traded himself... for a quintet of middling prospects. Enthralling.) Cole famously ditched his sinker upon arriving in Houston, dialed up the high four-seamers and knee-buckling breaking balls, and the rest is history. Taillon isn’t going to sign a $324 million contract any time soon, but once more, the Pirates have traded a talented but unreliable hurler who could stand to throw fewer sinkers in exchange for a pu-pu platter of prospects.
We’ll surely have more in-depth coverage of Taillon as a player in the coming days, so I’ll keep any discussion of what the Yankees could do with him brief. That said, a quick glance at his Statcast page illustrates those strained parallels to Cole. As a Pirate, Taillon threw his sinker 30-percent of the time. He yielded a .345 wOBA on those sinkers, essentially turning opponents into well above average hitters every time he threw the pitch.
Over the same span, Taillon’s four-seamer generated a .327 wOBA. His slider produced a .288 wOBA. Again, this is basic sabermetric analysis, and it always feels a tad simplistic to yell “throw the good pitches more, and the bad pitches less!”. But even a cursory look at Taillon’s profile reveals a pitcher the Yankees’ coaching staff could have success molding into something better.
Which isn’t even to say Taillon performed poorly in Pittsburgh. His career numbers look rock solid, having run a 112 ERA+ and 8.1 strikeouts per nine against 2.3 walks. If Taillon gets healthy and pitches to his norms, this is a nice pickup for the middle of New York’s rotation. If he unlocks his ultimate potential, as he hinted at during a 2018 campaign that saw him post a 122 ERA+ in 191 innings, the Yankees could suddenly have a frontline starter to slot in comfortably behind Cole.
Just like Kluber, this move comes with an abundance of “ifs”. If Kluber and Taillon can stay healthy. If Taillon has further potential to show. If Kluber can still perform at a high level having lost two or three ticks on his fastball. These “ifs” are the price the Yankees pay for forcing themselves under the tax. It would cost more money to sign higher-floor free agent starters, like Masahiro Tanaka, in addition to swinging for the fences. Instead, the Yankees are just playing for the home run. Instead of paying in dollars, the Yankees have paid in terms of performance risk in order to make the pieces fit.
And at the end of the day, it just might work. Taillon, Kluber, Deivi García, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán won’t all work out in 2021. But some of them will. At this point, the Yankees have cobbled together enough pitchers with upside that they really might hit on enough of them to enter October with a championship rotation. It’s far from a lock, but it’s honestly pretty surprising that the Yankees have managed to cut some $50 million in payroll so far while also maintaining a robust shot at an elite pitching staff.
In a way, the Yankees have done well. It appears they’ve solved the Rubik’s Cube with time to spare. They’ll enter the season with a full rotation of starters with clear MLB talent. They may even make it to the playoffs with a complement of pitchers who they’re comfortable starting in a high-stakes series. It just didn’t have to be quite this hard. The Yankees may have cracked the puzzle, but if things go sideways this summer, fans will have to ask if this was a puzzle worth solving.