2014 Statistics: 32 GS, 199.0 IP, 3.71 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 3.5 fWAR, 4.17 K:BB rate
2015 Age: 40
Position: Starting pitcher
If you look up the word "solid" in a Webster's dictionary, you might find a picture of Hiroki Kuroda next to it - that is, if the particular copy you're using happens to belong to some weirdo who cuts out photos of baseball players and pastes them in his dictionary. But in this instance, your oddball friend would be dead on. Throughout his three seasons in pinstripes, Kuroda has been the one starting pitcher Joe Girardi has relied on to take the mound every fifth day and deliver better-than-average results just about every time. As a Yankee, Kuroda has completed six or more innings of work in 72 of 97 starts, while boasting an ERA- of 84 and a WHIP of 1.15. Since 2012, he's led New York pitchers (min. 200 innings) not only in those categories, but also in fWAR (11.0), innings pitched (620), walks-per-nine (1.87) and batting average against (.246).
Even after finishing his age 39 season, Kuroda hasn't lost much - if anything - stuff-wise. While he uses his fastball less often than he did several years ago, his average velocity still sits at 91.1, only about a mile per hour less than in 2009. Kuroda's swinging strike rate in 2014 was 9.9 percent, and he forced hitters to chase 33.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Both numbers were right around his career norm thanks mostly to mid-to-high eighties splitter that serves as a tricky go-to out pitch. Kuroda's apt at forcing bad contact, which helps keep balls in the infield (59.9 percent of balls in play in 2014 were grounders or pop ups) and in the ballpark (0.90 HR/9), skills that can't be overlooked for a right-hander pitching at Yankee Stadium. With no red flag health marks on his ledger, there's no reason to believe he can't be as effective at 40 as he was at 39.
Kuroda is a free agent for the fifth time in his MLB career after completing his third consecutive one-year deal with the Yankees, which was worth $16 million. He's spent a lot of time pondering retirement or a return to Japanese baseball over the past few years, but if he does remain stateside, the cost of re-upping him would likely be around the same. The Yankees will be tempted this winter by flashier free agent arms, namely those belonging to Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, but Kuroda's willingness to work on one year deals shouldn't be ignored. The financial commitment required to keep him in the fold would be only a fraction of what Lester and Scherzer will command.
On Monday the odds of Kuroda returning to New York next year took a resounding blow when the Yankees declined to extend him a $15.3 million qualifying offer. That move could have one of several meanings. The team might hope to sign Kuroda for less than the QO, though after putting up a season statistically similar to his last few, it's hard to imagine that he'd be interested in a pay cut. The Yankees could already be aware of Kuroda's preference to not pitch in the majors next year, but if that we're the case they'd probably go through the motions of offering the QO to ensure draft pick compensation if he changes his mind and signs elsewhere. So the most likely scenario is that the Yankees have simply decided to thank Kuroda for his outstanding service and move on.
Ultimately the verdict the Yankees reach on Kuroda is not so much a referendum on him as it is one on how they view their pitching needs. If they're confident in the structural soundness of Masahiro Tanaka's elbow and in Michael Pineda's ability to finally throw a full season, then that's a pretty formidable one-two punch right there. If Tanaka and Pineda are healthy, then a sturdy number three like Kuroda is precisely what's needed to fill out the rotation ahead of question marks like CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Shane Greene (although Brandon McCarthy could fill that role, too). But if the Yankees aren't solid on Tanaka and Pineda up top, they may eschew Kuroda and open the Steinbrenner vault for a new ace in Lester or Scherzer.