George A. King III of the New York Post reported Sunday that Yankees scouts were in Chicago this weekend scouting Cincinnati Reds starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. The Reds are 28-34 and 6.5 games out of the National League's final playoff spot, so they figure to be sellers at the trade deadline this year, especially when it comes to pitchers set for free agency this winter in Cueto and Leake. The Yankees are sporting a mostly effective but dangerously fragile starting rotation, which is why they're taking a look at starting pitchers even with Ivan Nova set to return. Adding another starter would allow the team to confidently shift Adam Warren to the bullpen to aid their beleaguered relief corps and would provide some insurance for the health of Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda and the inconsistencies of CC Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi.
The 29-year-old Cueto will likely be the grand prize of the trade market this year. Through 85.1 innings over 12 starts, Cueto boasts a 2.85 ERA and 3.15 FIP to go with a 0.95 WHIP. Despite a career-low average fastball velocity of 92.4, he's been as effective as ever thanks to deceptiveness and control, which have yielded a 5.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 10.8 percent swing and miss rate. Cueto missed most of the 2013 season with various injuries and suffered some minor elbow soreness this May, but he's been durable more often than not of late, throwing over 200 innings in 2012 and 2014 and averaging over seven innings per start this year.
A trifecta of Cueto, Tanaka and Pineda would top just about any other big three in baseball, but as the grand prize of the trade market this year, the Reds' ace righty won't come cheap. To part with Cueto and the first round pick he'd bring back if he leaves as a free agent and signs elsewhere, Cincinnati will likely demand one of the Yankees' top prospects in Luis Severino or Aaron Judge along with other pieces. That's a lot to part with for a rent-a-player. Even if the Yankees feel strongly about re-signing him this winter, that'll be a huge financial investment to go along with the prospect cost. Cueto would make the Yankees the odds-on favorites to win the AL East, but we've seen clubs with super rotations like the Dodgers, Tigers and Nationals stumble in the playoffs in recent years to hotter or more well-rounded opponents.
Mike Leake isn't exactly Cueto, but he'd be a whole lot easier to acquire. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher, keeping 52.4% of balls in play on the ground this year and 53.4% in 2014. That plays well with the dimensions of Yankee Stadium and the Yankees' rangy infield, should it ever play up to expectations, but it also leaves Leake mostly at the mercy of the BABIP gods. This year, a 5.23 K-rate and an unusually high 22.8% line drive rate have left Leake with a 4.35 ERA and a 4.86 FIP, though that's thanks in part to a 19.7 home run-to-fly ball rate, which should improve. There's no one currently in the Yankee rotation who Leake is significantly better than, but he'd provide firmer insurance than Chris Capuano could and his $9.8 million salary in his final year of arbitration would make the price fairly minimal in terms of prospects. Leake could be a Brandon McCarthy-style addition, where the Yankees give up a bit part to get him and hope he returns to the two-win norm that he's established over the past couple of years.
One way to grab a pitcher from the Reds without gutting the farm might be to take on one of their bad multi-year contracts. Brandon Phillips is an instant upgrade over Stephen Drew at second. A decent 98 wRC+ along with a low strikeout rate of 12% would improve the Yankee offense and a right-handed bat might give their order more balance. But the roughly $34 million that Phillips is owed through 2017, when he'll be 36, lands him in the negative value zone. If the Yankees took on most or all of that it might give them a more realistic shot at Cueto.
The same logic could apply to Jay Bruce, who'll earn around $20 million between this year and next despite dwindling offensive production. The Yankees might not have an immediate spot for the 28-year-old Bruce, who once topped 30 homers three years in a row, but has been sub-replacement level since the start of 2014. Still, Yankee Stadium would be a prime spot for a revival. The lefty-swinging Bruce's 44.6% fly ball rate and 45.7% pull rate say he could probably improve his career-worst 13.6% homer to fly ball ratio in the Bronx. If the Yankees are ready to read the writing on the tombstone for Carlos Beltran, Bruce could be a passable alternative.