For the Yankees, the 2014-15 off-season will long be remembered as one of successful trades for Brian Cashman. He created a hole in the team's rotation by shipping out Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius, but he filled it weeks later when Martin Prado and David Phelps took their talents to South Beach in exchange for the Marlins' young righty Nathan Eovaldi along with prospect Domingo German and salary dump Garrett Jones.
The deal wasn't a "slam dunk throw it in your face" victory the way the Didi swap was - the Yankees took on Jones and ate some of Prado's salary, resulting in another year of Stephen Drew at second - but getting a then 24-year-old with a fastball sitting over 96 on average was well worth it. Though it ended on the DL with elbow inflammation, Eovaldi's first year in pinstripes was mostly a success. He went 14-3 with career bests in strikeout and ground ball rate, while earning 3.2 fWAR on a 3.42 FIP. Eovaldi seemed to find his stride in the second half, when he started lasting deeper in games and his FIP dipped to 3.10. A lot has been made of the lack of rotation on Eovaldi's pitches, but the tutelage of Larry Rothschild led to a jump in splitter usage, which he used to his advantage.
One thing that drew the Yankees to Eovaldi was his service time; he had three years of affordable team control via arbitration. He was a bargain in 2015 at $3.3 million and his worth will likely exceed his price again this year, when he'll earn $5.6 mil. Paying arguably their second best pitcher that little is a boon for a team with a payroll with some dead weight on it, but that's a fleeting victory. Now would be a good time for the Yankees to open a dialogue with Eovaldi to lock him in for 2017 and beyond.
The Yankees are heading for a starting pitching nuclear winter after the '17 season, when their only current rotation member still under control will be Luis Severino. Like Eovaldi, Michael Pineda will be eligible for free agency in two years, as will CC Sabathia...mercifully. Masahiro Tanaka can opt out post-2017 and even Ivan Nova, the current sixth starter, is free to go at the end of this year. The Yankees don't have much prospect-wise that projects to be ready for 2018 outside of the recently optioned James Kaprielian, who has thrown just 11.1 innings as a pro. Beyond him, the starting depth is mediocre at best with the likes of Brady Lail and Luis Cessa.
Extending Eovaldi, as much as it could prove a smart investment, almost seems like a necessity. The Yankees can't expect to viably fill three-fifths of a starting staff through outside free agency in a pair of classes that figure to be pretty light. Sure, there is the talented but really expensive - Stephen Strasburg next year and Jake Arrieta and Tyson Ross the year after - but beyond that, it's not as good and still costly. Andrew Cashner, Jered Weaver and Clay Buchholz are some of the other names who will hit the market in 2016 and 2017.
Eovaldi's future is not without risk, so the Yankees might prefer a wait-and-see approach. The words "elbow" and "DL" in the same sentence are about as scary a thing as there is for a pitcher. In the comprehensive study they released last month, MLB Trade Rumors named him the Yankees' top Tommy John surgery risk along with Tanaka.
While Eovaldi showed a lot of promise last year, improving on what were his weaknesses in Miami, he still hasn't had a breakout year. The three seasons in which he's made 20 starts or more have produced ERA's of 4.30, 4.37 and 4.20. Teams have paid big for potential before - the Reds in 2014 with Homer Bailey and the Red Sox last year with Rick Porcello - and those teams wound up guaranteeing over $187 million combined to a pair of pitchers who have since sputtered in their development.
The fact that Eovaldi isn't a sure bet, though, is why he could still be relatively affordable, and that's a window that could quickly slam shut. With two years left before free agency, he's beyond the point of "cheap," but if the Yankees were to strike now, they might still get him on a five or six-year deal with an average annual value in the teens, not the twenties.
That deal, if it kicked off in 2017, would start at age 27 and end at 31 or 32, not 35 like the free agent contracts signed by Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto this winter. To avoid a pitching doomsday in two years that would usher in the same "got no choice mentality" that's still paying Sabathia, the Yankees need to sign someone. Eovaldi's age and upward mobility make him their best bet.