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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Dylan Cease

The White Sox are hosting a fire sale and the Bombers should be all-in on their ace.

San Diego Padres v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Friday morning, the White Sox lit the winter hot stove ablaze with the announcement that they would entertain offers on all of their players.

Alongside the Yankees, the White Sox have to be one of the biggest disappointments of the last half-decade. They were never able to convert a wealth of homegrown talent both on the mound and at the plate into meaningful contention, their best season ending in a dismantling at the hands of the Astros in the 2021 ALDS. Following perhaps the worst season of the lot that saw them finish fourth in the division with over 100 losses, it appears the South Siders are ready to tear it down in anticipation of a lengthy rebuild. If no players are off-limits, one of the first names the Yankees should enquire on is staff ace Dylan Cease.

2023 Statistics: 33 starts, 177 IP, 4.58 ERA (97 ERA+), 3.72 FIP, 4.08 xFIP, 27.3 percent K%, 10.1 percent BB%, 3.7 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 31 starts, 178 IP, 4.13 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 26.2 percent K%, 10.0 percent BB%, 2.7 fWAR

Contract Status: Entering second year of arbitration eligibility, projected to earn $8.7 million by MLB Trade Rumors. Free agent following 2025 season.

When Cease first broke into the league in 2019, he came armed with one of the highest velocity four-seamers among starters. Though he’s lost roughly two ticks off the heater, he’s always supplemented it with a pair of devastating breaking balls. He has managed to leverage that deadly arsenal into becoming one of the premier strikeout artists in the game, placing among the top-20 in strikeout rate since his debut.

Though he had certainly established himself as a frontline starter with a 3.91 ERA, 4.5 fWAR finish across 165.2 innings in 2021, 2022 represented a breakout campaign that vaulted the young star into the national baseball awareness. It included a record 14 straight starts in which Cease gave up one or fewer earned runs. In the end, his 2.20 ERA in 184 innings was third-best among qualified starters and 227 strikeouts fifth-highest in MLB, all leading to a second-place finish in Cy Young balloting behind Justin Verlander.

Cease would be an absolute dream pitcher for Matt Blake to get his hands on. He’s proven eager to get into the lab to optimize spin and pitch shape, leading him from a mediocre fastball in terms of vertical movement to one of the best four-seamers league-wide, placing in the 94th percentile in rise vs. average over the last three years. And while not quite exhibiting the league-topping drop of his first years in the league, both the slider and curveball still possess top-of-the-line spin rates.

He’s a fascinating blend of wavery control but also impeccable command. By that I mean, he is prone to losing the strike zone for stretches as evidenced by a career walk rate in the double-digits as well as perennial placement among the league leaders in wild pitches. However, his ability to sequence his pitches, throwing them all out of the same slot and release point and often nailing identical aiming points on consecutive pitches makes him one of the best tunnelers of pitches in the game — a huge contributor to his elite strikeout and whiff rates.

He also possesses a deep knowledge of the way his pitches interact with each other, the lack of an appreciable horizontal component to the movement of his four-seamer, slider and curveball allowing him to spot all three pitches on the gloveside edge of the zone, with all three landing at substantially different vertical points when they reach the plate.

Check out these overlays of his fastball with each of the two breakers to get an idea of how well his pitches tunnel with each other. Here’s the fastball and slider:

And here’s the fastball and curveball:

All of this is what made Cease’s slight regression in 2023 eyebrow-raising. As I mentioned, his fastball comes in about two mph slower than his first seasons, and when batters don’t need to gear up quite as early for the fastball, it’s naturally accompanied by a drop-off in breaking ball effectiveness. What’s far more concerning has been the sharp disappearance of vertical tilt on his slider, losing over nine inches of break off its peak. With a slower fastball and blunted slider, it’s no wonder that hitters increased their contact rate by six points on his pitches in the zone, causing his swing runs to crater. At 27 years old, he’s a pitcher who should be hitting the peak of his prime years, which is what makes the degradation in Cease’s pitch quality and the resultant drop in results quite alarming.

Two things stand out about Cease’s 2022 campaign, and should be used as a roadmap to return him to his top form. For starters, Cease’s slider finished as the most valuable pitch in baseball, its 36 Statcast run value 11 runs better than the second-best pitch in the league (Shohei Ohtani’s sweeper). Second, Cease topped all pitchers in Statcast’s swing run value, his pitches generating a whopping 70 runs better than average when hitters swung. Much of this value accrued in the shadow and chase regions of the pitcher’s attack zone, meaning he was better than any other pitcher at getting hitters to swing and miss or generate weak contact on pitches on the edges or just out of the strike zone. If he can rediscover the break on his slider (one very similar to the slider Gerrit Cole throws, I might add), I think we could see swing runs and more broadly his overall effectiveness return to 2022 levels.

The Yankees are in need of starting pitching with Luis Severino, Frankie Montas and Domingo Germán hitting the free agent market, question marks looming over which version of Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes they will get in 2024, and the relative inexperience of Michael King and Clarke Schmidt. They have been most closely linked with Yoshinobu Yamamoto over recent weeks, and the Japanese ace is expected to be posted November 20th. Should they whiff on him as well as the other big names at the top of the free agent starting pitching market, the first place they should turn is the White Sox and Dylan Cease.