As the Yankees head into the second half of the 2015 season, they find themselves in first place with a slim three and a half game lead on the Rays in the AL East. Presently, their starting rotation is in a bit of an odd state. There are no clear obvious bullpen spots for their starters to go if the team chooses to reinforce it with a superior starting pitcher, but it's difficult to say that the Yankees don't need to improve. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda can only be depended on so much, and all of Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and Adam Warren represent wild cards in their own right, particularly the painfully declining CC.
Brian Cashman will surely at least browse the starting pitching market as the trade deadline approaches. Sure, he could set his sights on top arms Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija, but keep in mind that over roughly the past decade, he has really only made a play for the trade market's top arm once. Generally, most of his improvements have not been tremendously dramatic. If Cashman pursues a similar strategy this July in order to give top prospects like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino a future shot at pinstripes, one potentially useful starter who might not require a ransom is the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma.
Entering the 2015 season, the 34-year-old was regarded as one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball. Since coming stateside with Seattle in 2012, he's quietly been quite good, pitching to a 3.07 ERA and 3.59 FIP, both of which were superior to league averaged, as evidenced by his 81 ERA- and 93 FIP-. In 2013, he was named to the American League All-Star team and finished third in Cy Young Award voting thanks to a 219 2/3 inning season that saw him strike out 185 batters, record 7.0 rWAR, and pitch to a 2.66 ERA, a very nice 69 ERA-. The 2014 campaign wasn't quite as splashy, but he still finished with a 3.52 ERA, a 3.25 FIP, and walked a minuscule 1.1 batters per nine.
Iwakuma was never a huge strikeout pitcher, but despite not having pitches as explosive as someone like Nathan Eovaldi, he's still notched a 7.5 K/9 stateside due to his remarkable repertoire. Half the time, hitters simply just put the ball on the ground with minimal success. Iwakuma has five pitches: a fastball that sits around 88-91 mph, a splitter, a sinker, a slider, and a slow curve that gets mixed in every now and then. His command of the splitter is something that should especially appeal to the Yankees how much success they have witnessed over the past few years from the splitters thrown by Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda. Like his two countrymen, Iwakuma's splitter is filthy, quickly diving out of the strike zone and inducing a ton of weak ground balls if the batters are even successful making contact. He has command of all of his pitches, seemingly able to throw any of them in any count.
Presently, the Mariners sit in fourth place in the AL West, seven games under .500 and seven and a half games back of the Angels. Considered the AL favorites by some pundits heading into 2015, it's been a disaster, and if they don't make up a little more ground soon, GM Jack Zduriencik might have to sell if he wants to salvage his job. So Iwakuma could potentially be available. His 2015 struggles cannot be entirely ignored though. The snap judgment might be to quickly move on from considering him since he has a 5.22 ERA and 6.21 FIP in five starts. Through the first three starts in April, it was quite obvious that something was amiss, as he was uncharacteristically smacked around in all of them. An MRI revealed a Grade 1 lat strain, and he was on the DL from mid-April to the beginning of July.
The righty showed rust in his first start off the DL, allowing four homers to the Tigers on July 6th. However, in his last start before the All-Star Break against the Angels, the Iwakuma of old was back. He twirled eight shutout innings of three-hit ball, making even some of the game's best hitters look feeble with some sharply executed pitches:
When even Mike Trout is swinging over a dynamite splitter on the outer half of the plate, that's a terrific sign. There's no denying that taking Iwakuma on in the second half would bring some risk. It's not even clear who he would replace in the rotation unless they defied expectations by actually demoting CC Sabathia or trading Ivan Nova, and it's obviously still possible that this one start against the Angels was a fluke.
That being said, his questionable 2015 results are why Cashman might be able to pick Iwakuma up on the cheap. The much larger sample of his previous MLB success from 2012-14 should matter more to the reports on him than just a handful of starts this year, when he was mostly hurt. Cashman and Zduriencik are no strangers to making trades with each other either, collaborating on four deals since the start of 2012. Iwakuma will not cost the Yankees one of their top prospects at this point. If Zduriencik is willing to accept the kinds of so-so prospects the Yankees have dealt over the past few seasons, then there could a match.
Inserting a starter close to the caliber Iwakuma represented prior to 2015 could be a boon for the rotation, and a steal if it pays off. Just imagine a rotation where hitters have to deal with both Tanaka and Iwakuma's splitter. If the Yankees are willing to roll the dice, then they certainly have a good shot to reap the rewards.