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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Brandon Woodruff

The two-time All-Star was non-tendered by the Brewers, but shoulder capsule injuries carry massive risk for pitchers.

Milwaukee Brewers v Miami Marlins Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

While the free agent market is light on the position player side, there is a far more robust menu of options on the starting pitching side. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and Sonny Gray all figure to positively impact their future teams. One of the biggest names came off the board with Aaron Nola re-upping with the Phillies on a seven-year, $172 million deal — only to be replaced in the marketplace by another All-Star starter with the Brewers non-tendering Brandon Woodruff.

Obviously, Nola’s and Woodruff’s cases diverge, with Nola coming off another solid season and several lights-out performances in the playoffs while Woodruff missed the majority of the 2023 season with right shoulder ailments. He ultimately underwent surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his pitching shoulder and is expected to miss most if not all of the 2024 season — what would have been his final year of arbitration eligibility. Therefore, a two-year deal that allows him to rehab in the first season is the likeliest route to acquiring the two-time All-Star, but this should not preclude the Yankees from at least taking a look at one of the better starting pitchers of the last half-decade.

2023 Statistics: 11 starts, 67 IP, 2.28 ERA (189 ERA+), 3.60 FIP, 3.63 xFIP, 29.2 percent K%, 5.9 percent BB%, 1.4 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: Unlikely to pitch as he rehabs from shoulder surgery — September return optimistic outcome.

Contract Status: Non-tendered by Brewers, was projected to earn $11.6 million in fourth and final year of arbitration eligibility.

Starting with his first full season in 2018, Woodruff has placed among the game’s elite, his 2.93 ERA fourth lowest, 23.7 percent K-BB% fifth best, and 3.10 FIP seventh lowest among qualified starting pitchers over that span. His average fastball velocity clocks in at 96.4 mph — the eleventh highest among qualified starters during that stretch — and induces the sixth-highest whiff rate (29.6 percent) of all starting pitchers, 0.6 points higher than Gerrit Cole.

Woodruff has a tantalizing combination of filthy raw stuff and pristine command. Since 2019, he’s got the 21st-highest called-strike-plus-whiff rate among starters at 29.7 percent while placing in the 78th percentile or higher in walk rate in four out of five seasons. Pitch modeling systems love his abilities even more, placing him tied for tenth in Stuff+ (114) and tied for third in Location+ (107), which combine to rank him as the fifth-best starter in baseball with a 109 Pitching+ score. He’s even decent at keeping the ball in the yard, surrendering one home run per nine innings over the last five years.

In some respects, the form Woodruff showed over his brief cameo in 2023 was the best of his career. He made two starts before missing a large chunk to injury, but returned to pitch to a 2.59 ERA through the end of the year. During that time, he posted the lowest xwOBA (.263) of his career and even added some rise to his four-seamer, raising it to the 94th percentile in vertical movement vs. average. Keep in mind, those nine starts occurred after a 60-day IL stint for a strain in his pitching shoulder, so the fact he was so effective pitching through an injury that ultimately required surgery was, though maybe not predictive, at least admirable.

It goes without saying that the shoulder capsule surgery throws a massive wrench into our ability to project performance going forward. Given that he is expected to miss the majority of the 2024 season, Woodruff should by no means be the Yankees’ only starting pitching target. It would be borderline negligent to consider him the lone solution to a starting rotation depleted by the departures of Luis Severino, Frankie Montas and Domingo Germán and the uncertainty surrounding Carlos Rodón, Nestor Cortes, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt. Instead, he would be a high-upside, low-risk gamble after shoring up the starting staff with at least one impact starter guaranteed to contribute in 2024 and beyond.

This goes doubly so when you consider the extreme unpredictability of pitchers returning from shoulder injury, particularly to the capsule. Whereas with Tommy John surgery, where pitchers can almost be expected to return to their pre-injury form following a full rehab, there are no such guarantees when it comes to shoulder surgery. Recovery time can be as much as six months longer than TJS, and a much lower percentage of pitchers return to pitch in the majors. That’s not to say that capsule surgery is a death knell for a pitcher the way something like a Thoracic Outlet Syndrome procedure might be, but it’s generally wise to have tempered expectations for future performance, such that anything you get in the future is almost playing with house money.

It shouldn’t take much to acquire Woodruff — that the Brewers were forced to non-tender a pitcher of his pedigree hints at the lack of appetite around the league. A deal would likely take the form of a two-year pact that allows Woodruff to rehab in the first year and then hopefully use the second year as a platform into what’s become a delayed free agency, much like the deals we’ve seen handed out to Tyler Glasnow, Mike Clevinger, Tommy Kahnle, Kirby Yates, Chad Green and others in recent years. Again, it’s the type of zero-risk move if and only if the Yankees have already reinforced the rotation — but still one the team should absolutely consider, treating it almost like a preemptive move for next winter.