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Valuing the best of the NL Central

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At least three pitchers could be big pieces for the Yankees, but which one fits best?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last six weeks or so, I’ve detailed three pitchers the Yankees should be interested in, and they all happen to come from rebuilding teams in a pretty bad division. Joe Musgrove, Luis Castillo and Kyle Hendricks all come with multiple seasons of control, two are better than the best FA pitcher available, and the third has shown an incredible amount of potential. Crucially for the Yankees, Hendricks is the most expensive at $13.9 million AAV, less than what Trevor Bauer will command, and right around what Masahiro Tanaka will likely sign for.

The Yankees have signaled they’re more interested in staying under the $210 million first CBT threshold than anything else this winter, and it’s pretty difficult to do that while paying market rate for free agent pitchers. The trade market seems to be the best way to improve the rotation, and these three arms are the best that could be reasonably landed. So the question is, which one of the three?

This is, essentially, each player’s Roster Report dashboard brought together for easy comparison. Hendricks and Castillo can both become FAs after the 2023 season, while a trade for Musgrove only guarantees this season and next. Castillo likely becomes the most expensive in terms of CBT hit as early as next year, as a 3.6 fWAR season likely catapults him ahead of Hendricks in earnings.

BaseballTradeValues, while certainly not perfect, agrees that Castillo is the most valuable piece of the trio, with a median value of 114.8 million, while both Hendricks and Musgrove are valued within half a million dollars of the $37 million mark.

This delineation of value means that a Hendricks and Musgrove package probably look similar, but a Castillo deal probably can’t be done without taking on a massive contract in exchange. I don’t do specific trade proposals, but if you know the Reds, you know there is one very ugly contract on those books, and I’m not sure I’d want that, even for a pitcher as good as Castillo.

There’s another layer of complexity in the trade market, because there’s very rarely ever one team competing for a player. The trade market is essentially an open auction, players are known to be on the block and GMs field calls from everyone. Mike Axisa’s Patreon post from Friday indicated that the Rays are pursuing a trade for Joe Musgrove seriously, and to me, that changes the calculus of any potential deal for the Yankees.

Imagine you’re a random MLB GM, maybe of the Diamondbacks or something. You’ve watched from a distance the way the Yankees have turned mediocre-to-bad position players like DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, Luke Voit and Didi Gregorius into All-Star bats. Brian Cashman calls you and says he wants to trade for some middling Triple-A corner outfielder.

That should be a signal to you that this outfielder has something special you’re missing. The Yankees have arguably been the best team in baseball at getting the most out of unassuming hitters over the past five years or so, and they clearly think our hypothetical outfielder is the next big improvement project.

That’s how I feel whenever the Rays target a pitcher. This is why I’m more worried about Luis Patiño and Cole Wilcox than some others are. If the Rays want a guy, I want that guy. If the Rays are serious about Musgrove, I want the Yankees to be serious about Musgrove. The problem is, boy the Rays’ system is better than the Yankees.

BaseballAmerica and MLB.com both have the Rays as the best system in baseball in their September updates, while the Yankees rank 19th and 18th respectively. FanGraphs is higher on the Yankees system, but their analysis favors high-ceiling types that are far from the majors, where the error bars are the largest despite the potential payoffs being so great. Suffice it to say, if the Rays and Yankees went head to head in a bidding war, the Rays almost certainly win.

Moreover, if the Rays land Musgrove, it puts more pressure on the Yankees to make a similar move in order to keep pace in the AL East title race. A rotation of Tyler Glasnow-Musgrove-Patiño really isn’t that far off from Glasnow-Blake Snell-Charlie Morton, especially when you factor in Rays Devil Magic Annoying Goodness.

So we have a trio of very good, very affordable pitchers. One is clearly above the others in terms of talent and control, but that’s baked into what he’ll cost to acquire. One is sought after by perhaps the best development team in the game. One is in his 30s but there’s a good case to be made that he’ll age better than either of the other two.

Castillo, to me, is the piece the Yankees need the most, but he’s also the piece they’re least likely to get. Massive deals like this aren’t Brian Cashman’s style, even when he had a better farm system. There could be a bidding war for Joe Musgrove, and if the Cubs want to walk the tightrope of being Cheap but Competitive, Kyle Hendricks would anchor their rotation. Who do you want?