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Will Warren deserves a crack at the big league rotation

After missing out on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Yankees need all the help they can get in the rotation.

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Minor League Baseball: Louisville Bats at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are in trouble. Just when it seemed like upper management was ready to do an about-face on their reluctance to go all-in on any single season — 2024 being perhaps their best chance to do so with the current core — they reverted back to old habits. In a move that evoked memories of the Manny Machado free agency saga, the Yankees held firm on their ten-year, $300 million offer to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, happy to see him sign with the Dodgers on a 12-year, $325 million pact. That’s a difference of roughly $2.5 million per year.

Yamamoto represented the most sure-fire avenue to reinforcing a starting rotation that collapsed behind Gerrit Cole in 2023. If you needed any indication of the shortage the Yankees currently face on the starting staff, FanGraphs currently has Clayton Beeter penciled in as the fifth starter. If their desire to contend in 2024 is sincere, they simply cannot enter the season handing one of the five starting jobs to a guy with just 71 innings of 4.94 ERA, 5.76 FIP ball above Double-A to his name.

Instead, I would encourage the Yankees to put Will Warren on the 40-man roster and give him a real shot in spring and maybe even the start of season to get his feet wet in the major league rotation. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic believes that Warren is already the favorite to win the fifth starter job out of a spring training competition against Beeter given Warren possessed the best Stuff+ ranking — a metric created by Eno Sarris that integrates inputs such as velocity, spin, and movement — of any Triple-A pitcher last year, leading to far superior results.

With impact options for the rotation via free agency and trade growing more scarce with each day that the Yankees whiff on their targets, they will need all the in-house help they can get. Past seasons have shown that you can never have too much rotation depth — David Cone has said that it takes eight to nine starters to weather the grind of the regular season. Therefore, it would behoove the Yankees for Warren to get some experience under his belt.

The Yankees selected Warren in the eighth round of the 2021 MLB Draft and he rose quickly through the minors, reaching Double-A just two months into his pro career. He was called up to Triple-A in May of last year, and after some initial growing pains that saw him pitch to a 7.08 ERA in his first five starts, the righty was sterling the rest of the way with a 2.72 ERA across his final 14 starts. This success moved him up the organizational top prospect lists such that MLB Pipeline, FanGraphs, and Keith Law of The Athletic ranked him as the second-best Yankees pitching prospect and among the top-ten in the organization overall.

He’s got a five-pitch mix of sinker, sweeper, four-seamer, slider, and changeup. He uses the sinker and slider the most, the former generating a 67 percent groundball rate and the latter an absurd 20 percent swinging strike in 2023 (for reference, Clay Holmes’ sinker generated a 70.5 percent groundball rate and Gerrit Cole’s slider a 16.4 percent swinging strike rate). Warren’s 52.7 percent groundball rate overall would’ve been tops in the major league rotation, though he would certainly benefit from reining in the walks, having issued free passes at an almost 11 percent clip.

Warren already has near-elite MLB stuff by raw pitch metrics. He’s added a few mph to his four-seamer since being drafted — it now sits 92-95 and can touch 97. What’s more, the pitch’s average spin rate sits in the high 2,400s, which would place it well above the 90th percentile of MLB four-seamers. Despite this, the pitch doesn’t exhibit the kind of rise you’d want from a high-spinning four-seamer, so perhaps some tweaks to finger placement and seam orientation at release would maximize the pitch’s spin efficiency, thus giving it better vertical movement.

His best pitch is hands-down the sweeper, and boy is it a dandy. The pitch averages well over 3,000 rpm which would immediately place it in the top ten of all sweepers in MLB by spin rate. What’s more, the pitch exhibits roughly 15 inches of gloveside movement, which at 84 mph would also make it a top-ten sweeper in MLB by horizontal movement vs. average. He also possesses a more traditional gyro slider — also with an elite spin rate at 2,900 rpm — with negligible horizontal movement but a decent amount of drop. Clay Holmes has provided a template of how to work the sweeper and slider off each other effectively so perhaps that is an approach Warren could integrate.

That Warren is given an opportunity to establish a foothold in the majors becomes all the more important when you consider the uncertainty surrounding three out of the four starters already on the active roster. There is no telling how effective Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes will be coming off disappointing, injury-riddled campaigns in 2023. Clarke Schmidt was fine in the fifth starter role, but blew past his previous career-high in usage tossing 159 innings last season.

The Yankees also need to replace the innings of the departed Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez. At the beginning of the offseason, we wondered how the Yankees would fill the vacated fireman role in the bullpen once it became clear that the team intended to stretch out Michael King for the rotation. My former colleague Alex made the case for either Jhony Brito or Randy Vásquez given the pair’s success transitioning from deputy starters in the first half to multi-inning relievers in the second. Well, all three pitchers are no longer employed by the team, having headlined the package that landed the Yankees Juan Soto and Trent Grisham. Thus, even if he doesn’t stick as a full-time member of the rotation, Warren could provide valuable innings in a swingman role as Rosenthal also suggested in his article.

Speaking on the rotation at the Winter Meetings, Brian Cashman asserted that he was “comfortable with what [they] have, worst-case scenario.” Having struck out on Yamamoto, the Yankees have effectively created said worst-case scenario, placing their starting staff in a perilous position for 2024. Warren is the most polished pitcher in their minor league system. Beeter has never pitched in the majors, Luis Gil made only two appearances with the Single-A Tampa Tarpons coming off Tommy John surgery, Chase Hampton reached Double-A for the first time last year and pitched 59.2 innings, while Yoendrys Gómez looked decent in his two-inning cup of coffee in 2023 but otherwise had not pitched above Double-A. Warren has earned his opportunity right when the Yankees need him most.