Brandon McCarthy was one of several unexpected bright spots for an injury-plagued Yankees starting rotation this year. Acquired from Arizona on July 6th, the 6'7 right-hander made fourteen starts as a Yankee and quickly made his presence felt in New York, posting a 2.89 ERA, 3.22 FIP and 1.15 WHIP along with a superb 6:31 K:BB ratio in 90.1 innings. In his half season in pinstripes, McCarthy did pretty much exactly what you'd want from a mid-rotation Yankees starter - he didn't walk anyone (1.3 BB/9 innings) and he kept the ball in the infield (48 percent groundball rate). That's usually a workable formula for success in a hitters' ballpark like Yankee Stadium.
McCarthy's Yankee career might be a short one as the 31-year-old will be a free agent this November. He did enough down the stretch for the Yankee front office to at least consider keeping him around long-term, perhaps as a more cost-effective alternative to some of the bigger name starters on this year's market, particularly Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields. It's unclear, though, just how cost-effective McCarthy will ultimately be, especially after his strong finish on New York's grand stage.
Among starting pitcher free-agents-to-be, McCarthy finished the year fifth in fWAR at 3.0, nestled in between teammate Hiroki Kuroda (3.5) and Atlanta's Ervin Santana (2.8). The starter who was fifth in fWAR in last year's less top-heavy free agent class was Ricky Nolasco whose 3.1 fWAR an 3.34 FIP in 199.1 innings thrown for the Marlins and Dodgers in 2013 earned him a four-year, $49 million commitment from the Minnesota Twins. Just ahead of him, in fourth place at 3.3 was Ubaldo Jimenez, whose strong second half in Cleveland got him four years and $50 million from the Orioles. A few spots lower was Matt Garza. He cashed in an abridged 22-start, 2.2 fWAR campaign for a four-year, $50 million deal of his own from Milwaukee - his complete with a fifth year vesting option. Like Nolasco and Garza, McCarthy will be ineligible for a value-damaging qualifying offer this offseason since he was traded during the season.
The 2013-14 free agent frenzy wasn't as kind to everyone as it was to Nolasco, Jimenez and Garza. The top three pitchers in fWAR on last year's market all signed one or two-year deals, though two of them, Kuroda and A.J. Burnett, were contemplating retirement and weren't looking for a long commitment and the third, Bartolo Colon, had his price severely limited by his advanced age and notable girth. Moving down last year's list, Santana, number six, rejected a qualifying offer from Kansas City and eventually settled on a QO-like $14.1 mil one-year deal with the Braves and number seven, Scott Kazmir, scored two years and $22 million from Oakland. Kazmir, of course, was coming off an impressive 9.23 K-rate in 2013, but he'd missed nearly two full seasons in 2011 and 2012 on the back of two horrible campaigns in 2009 and 2010, which made him a somewhat unusual free agent.
So where does McCarthy fit in all this? 2014's is a very different starting pitching class than 2013's. There will be three proven aces looking for jobs, but there aren't as many decent arms available overall. Behind McCarthy, Santana, Jason Hammel and Francisco Liriano are older pitchers like Jake Peavy and Dan Haren, injury cases like Brett Anderson and Brandon Morrow (both of whom have team options) and guys coming off poor years like Justin Masterson. The lack of many solid mid-rotation contributors might pump up McCarthy's stock, especially if he's willing to hold out until the big guns are all off the board.
McCarthy does have a little Kazmir in him which may hold him back. 2014 was the first time he's ever pitched a full season - he set career highs in innings pitched, 200, and in games started, 32. Lack of durability is pretty alarming for a guy over 30, and it may scare some teams off. McCarthy's had repeated shoulder issues which cost him the 2010 season in its entirety and two months in 2013, although it was a freak line drive to the head, resulting in a skull fracture and brain contusion that hampered him in 2012. For what it's worth, McCarthy's pitched regularly without incident since August of last year, making 43 starts in regular rotation since then.
Despite the health questions, McCarthy's eventual payday is likely to fall in closer to the Nolasco/Garza/Jimenez group than to the Kazmir/Colon faction. To lock him up, the Yankees will likely need to bid a minimum of three years and $36 million, and they may need to up that to four years and something between $50 and $56 mil. That's not a small investment for a guy without a great track record of reliability, but it's the going rate for number three starters these days, and McCarthy's shown the potential to be a higher end one of those. It's also about half of what Shields will be looking for and about a third of what Scherzer's and Lester's asking prices will be. He doesn't come without risk, but the Yankees should spend what it takes to keep McCarthy around.