February is only a few days away and the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup appears all but set. Reports suggest that the team will rely upon internal solutions to address the shakier areas of the roster — Aaron Hicks the favorite to start in left, Domingo Germán and Clarke Schmidt in competition to cover for Frankie Montas’ first month absence, Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Oswald Peraza at short — but that should not prevent the team from continuing to look for upgrades externally.
That’s where the A’s come into play. Oakland have shown little interest in retaining their arbitration-eligible players, preferring to trade them away to extend their window of non-contention as they amass a farm of youngsters for some eventual push into relevance. For now though, the fire sale continues, as evidenced by their trade of Cole Irvin to the Orioles, which opened the door for them to make available another player in a similar contractual situation as Irvin: Paul Blackburn.
2022 Stats: 21 games, 111.1 IP, 4.28 ERA (87 ERA+), 4.21 FIP, 19.1% K%, 6.4% BB%, 0.8 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Agreed to a one year, $1.9 million contract to avoid arbitration in first of three years of arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2025 season.
A hasty glance at Blackburn’s 2022 season, both top line stats and more granular metrics, hardly inspires excitement. He didn’t throw a ton of innings, was worse than league average in run prevention, doesn’t strike out a ton of dudes, and doesn’t have much swing and miss in his game. However, his overall numbers are negatively impacted by some of the most drastic splits of any pitcher in baseball.
Blackburn’s 2.12 ERA and .270 wOBA while pitching on the road stands in stark contrast to his 8.31 ERA and .414 wOBA while pitching at home. It’s one of the more pronounced home vs. away splits you’ll ever see — almost a bizarre “reverse” split that he would pitch so poorly in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Coliseum. That he should perform so lights-out on the road should give any inquiring team encouragement.
What’s more, Blackburn was one of the better starters in baseball in the first half, his 2.90 ERA through the first week of July placing him in the top-20. But then he struggled mightily in the second half to the tune of an 8.79 ERA and .464 wOBA against (.302 in the first half) as he attempted to pitch through a torn flexor tendon sheath in his pitching hand that ultimately ended his season in mid-August. He went from an almost 50 percent groundball rate and nine home runs surrendered in his first 97 innings to a 46 percent flyball rate and six home runs allowed in his final 14.1 innings. Perhaps we can expect something closer to his first-half results should he return fully healthy this season.
Even taking Blackburn’s season as a whole into consideration, there are still some things he did very well. He was the owner of an above-average average exit velocity, walk rate, and barrel rate. He also gets a tremendous amount of movement on a pair of his pitches. His curveball sits in the top-ten in vertical movement vs. average while his cutter places in the top-ten in horizontal movement vs. average.
I think the Cole Irvin trade is a perfect jumping off point when we consider a prospective Blackburn acquisition. Both are cost-controlled back-end starters, but at 29 are probably not the type of players Oakland is looking to build around. In fact, you could argue Oakland’s window will not open until both hit free agency, so the best long-term value they could offer the club is the return in a trade.
That’s where the similarities end. Irvin at least gives you an extra year of team control, and will eat innings, having pitched at least 178 frames in each of the last two seasons. Last season was by far the largest innings total for Blackburn. With that in mind, it might take an even lesser package to pry Blackburn away from Oakland than the relative pittance Baltimore paid to acquire Irvin. The A’s are incentivized to sell as he blocks other young pitchers in the system, so all of this could conspire to make Blackburn available at a cut-rate.
To me, Blackburn represents the type of marginal upgrade around the fringes of the roster that every contending team could use. Whether providing insurance for the inevitability of injury or contributing those one or two wins that make the difference in the division at the end of the year, we’ve seen the way teams benefit from this type of addition. At the very least he offers some controllable insurance at the back end of the rotation with several Yankees starters slated to become free agents at the end of the 2023 season. He flashed upside in the first half, and is just the type of project Brian Cashman has loved to pursue in recent seasons.