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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Jacob deGrom

Could New York make a run at the best pitcher in baseball?

Wild Card Series - San Diego Padres v New York Mets - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s not often that a Hall of Fame-caliber starting pitcher hits the open market with potentially several elite seasons still remaining in his arm. However, that’s exactly the case with Jacob deGrom — as was widely expected — opting out of his final guaranteed year of the five-year, $137.5 million contract he signed with the Mets in 2019. In doing so, he leaves $30.5 million on the table, but figures to exceed that total significantly upon signing a new deal.

2022 Statistics: 11 games, 64.1 IP, 3.08 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 1.54 xFIP, 14.3 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 2.2 fWAR

Previous Contract: Signed five-year, $137.5 million contract with Mets in 2019.
Opted out of final year and $30.5 million, becoming a free agent.

In terms of pure pitching ability, deGrom is still the best pitcher in baseball. Among starters with at least 60 innings pitched, deGrom paced the field, again, in strikeout-minus-walk ratio at 39.3 percent, a full nine points higher than second-place finisher and NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Spencer Strider. I find K-BB% to be the purest distillation of pitching ability — it directly measures the two outcomes the pitcher has the most control over. The leaderboard is usually filled with all the most valuable pitchers in baseball and deGrom perennially finishes at or near the top.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Any discussion about deGrom’s greatness starts with his fastball. It is routinely the hardest fastball thrown by any starter in baseball, averaging 99 mph or higher in each of the last three seasons. It’s a Hall of Fame pitch with elite spin and elite location, and deGrom relishes the opportunity to sit batters down on three straight. Here’s his first inning of work after missing over a year from the midway point of the 2021 season:

As if a triple-digits fastball wasn’t enough, deGrom’s slider is in the argument for the best in the game as well. It’s the fastest slider thrown by a starter, averaging 92.6 mph. And among all pitchers to face at least 100 batters, deGrom’s slider is second in the league in whiff rate (53.8 percent), strikeout rate (53.6 percent), and putaway rate (35.1 percent), trailing only his former and possibly future teammate Edwin Díaz. He also throws a devastating changeup, but for whatever reason slashed the usage rate in half over the last two seasons relative to his Cy Young-winning campaigns in 2018 and 2019.

There’s no doubting that on his day, deGrom is unparalleled in the league; however, he began to show the first cracks of mortality in a long while. He had five outings giving up at least three runs after surrendering just one such outing a year ago, and pitched to a 6.00 ERA with six home runs across his final four starts.

What’s interesting is that deGrom managed double-digit strikeouts in most of those home run-plagued games. The majority of the long balls came against his four-seamer when he was working from behind in the count and had to attack the zone. I draw a lot of similarities to Gerrit Cole — both aces can become two-pitch pitchers at times. Hitters worked into favorable counts, sat fastball, and didn’t miss. Like Cole, it felt like he got punished more than he should have, and I do expect his inflated 17 percent HR/FB rate to regress closer to career norms. This tells me that the stuff is clearly still there, he just got punished for momentary lapses in command — perhaps an indicator of rust after missing more than a year and coming off major shoulder surgery.

All this being said, we need to address the elephant in the room: injuries. After three straight seasons of more than 200 innings pitched between 2017 and 2019, deGrom cannot stay on the field. He threw 92 innings in 2021 and looked to be on course for the greatest season by a starting pitcher in history, but missed the final two and a half months with forearm inflammation. Then, he missed the first four months of 2022 with a stress fracture in his shoulder and managed only 64.1 innings.

deGrom might be the biggest gamble on the market, and that’s in a free agent class that might see a 10-year deal handed to a 30-year-old Aaron Judge. Because of the injury history, the error bars for deGrom are perhaps wider than for any other player in baseball. On one hand, he’s perfectly capable of running away with the Cy Young Award. On the other hand, he could pitch like the runaway Cy Young winner for 60 innings and sit on the shelf the rest of the season.

As good as he would look in the real pinstripes, it’s hard to see a scenario where the Yankees sign deGrom. By opting out of the $30.5 million he was due this season, it signals confidence that he can best that mark in terms of AAV and overall value. Early reports suggest that deGrom has his eye on besting the AAV record of $43.3 million set by former rotationmate Max Scherzer when he signed with the Mets last offseason for three years and $130 million.

That’s where things get complicated really quickly for the Yankees. Their number one priority is retaining Aaron Judge and Jon Heyman indicates that ownership is willing to top Judge’s ask of $36 million from the failed extension negotiations last spring. Payroll currently sits around $203 million between guaranteed contracts and projected arbitration salaries. Between a long-term deal for Judge and potentially record-setting money for deGrom, the Yankees would be staring at $80 million committed to just two players, which directly conflicts with ownership’s desire to reset their luxury tax offender status every three years.

Imagining a rotation spearheaded by deGrom and Gerrit Cole is a mouth-watering prospect. Unfortunately, it looks far more like a pipe dream than reality at this point. Given ownership’s slavish adherence to payroll flexibility, it’s impossible to envision them shelling out what it would take to secure deGrom’s signature. It wouldn’t be the first time that they passed on a mid-30s starting pitcher who could be bound for Cooperstown; the question is whether a repeat of such behavior will come back to haunt them the way passing on Scherzer and Justin Verlander did.