SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Yankees should sign Gerrit Cole. That is the easiest sentence I will write this offseason. He is exactly what they need — an ace, in his prime, who has proven he can excel in October.
But what if they don’t get him? Brian Cashman said the Yankees will be checking in on Cole and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the pitching market. Yet, when I ask rival executives their thoughts, they don’t cower at the concept that the big, bad Yankees will just swoop in at the end and pay the most money. Because that would push the Yankees toward (or maybe even over) the top luxury tax threshold of $248 million and those rivals think Hal Steinbrenner doesn’t want to go there.
Now, never say never. But Patrick Corbin was what the Yankees needed last year and ranked atop their free agent board as certainly as Cole does now. Yet, six years at $140 million (what Corbin received from the Nationals) was way beyond the Yankees’ comfort zone. And Cole could be looking at double that — $280 million over eight years, which is $35 million per season.
The Yankees were worried about the length, in particular, with Corbin. Got it. But this is the cost for here and now teams, and the Yankees are that — a team good enough to win a championship today. If the Yanks have Corbin last year, do they win it all? They would argue no because taking on Corbin would have meant subtracting at least one or two from Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino and DJ LeMahieu to make budget. Which is a reminder again that the Yankees have a budget.
It would suggest that if Zack Wheeler gets up near $20 million per year on a four- or five-year deal, that might also not work for the Yankees. So, what do they do?
The Yankees will insist they are panic-free. They won 103 games essentially without their ace, Luis Severino. They feel J.A. Happ pitched as poorly as possible. They feel James Paxton found his best New York footing in the second half. That trio plus Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German (when he returns from an expected suspension), Jordan Montgomery and prospects Deivi Garcia and Mike King give them a nucleus to win plenty again, especially supported once more by a strong lineup and deep pen.
Yet, they do want to add a starter. And it is probably important that it is someone they control beyond this season because Paxton and Tanaka are both entering their walk years. Thoughts:
Mike Clevinger — The Indians tried and failed to do a pre-arbitration years, long-term deal with the righty last spring. Now, he is arbitration eligible for the first time, due about $5 million for 2020, which even Cleveland fits into its budget comfortably. But if the Indians don’t think they can enlist him long term and see a chance now to get three or four really strong, inexpensive pieces, their history is to explore before Clevinger gets too expensive.
The Yankee advantage: They will know a lot about this player from new pitching coach Matt Blake, who comes from the Indians. The disadvantage: Just about the whole industry is looking for starting pitching and teams such as the Braves and Dodgers have deeper systems to pursue a starter who over the last three years has a 2.96 ERA/10.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Corey Kluber, owed $17.5 million with a $14 million club option in 2021, is way more attainable. But he started just seven games last year, turns 34 in April and his stuff might be regressing.
Johnny Cueto, Giants/Yu Darvish, Cubs — This only works if Jacoby Ellsbury waives his no trade and is accepted by the Giants/Cubs as a financial counterweight for essentially 2020. Ellsbury is owed $26 million between next year’s salary and a 2021 buyout. Cueto is guaranteed two years at $47 million. Darvish four years at $81 million.
The concept would be Ellsbury and Yankees prospects for the starter. The retooling Giants save money and add prospects. The Cubs gain long-term financial flexibility and crave prospects. Plus if Ellsbury could actually play, he could help in an area of need (center field) for a front office that drafted him in Boston.
Cueto missed most of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. But as one AL executive said, “that dude knows how to pitch and if he is healthy, he will pitch well.” Darvish just might not be a New York kind of guy and his wildness is scary. But Chicago is a big city, and when he controlled his pitches better in the second half last year he reminded about his vast arsenal: 2.76 ERA/.199 batting average against.
Rick Porcello — He is a free agent, and again what should be remembered is the Yankees are not alone in chasing starters. Teams looking to spend, such as the Angels and Phillies, want to add at least two rotation pieces each. Porcello is not in free agent Group A with Cole/Strasburg or even Group B led by Wheeler. He is in the next tier with starters such as Michael Pineda, whose stuff profile would probably lead the Yankees to chase him hard had they not had him already (in fact, I would not eliminate him as a possibility).
What is attractive about Porcello? He is from New Jersey and the Yankees know he will not scare pitching in a big city or the AL East after five years with Boston. He is durable, having never started fewer than 27 games in 11 seasons. So he provides innings when there are going to be injury concerns always for Paxton and Tanaka, in particular. He only turns 31 next month. And in a career mainly as a mid-rotation starter, there is 2016 when he rose to the AL Cy Young.
My hunch is the Yankees are looking for a chance at a higher upside. But that will cost in prospects and/or dough in a way they may not want to pay or that is blocked by others beating them to those pitchers. Though, of course, they could avoid this with the easiest sentence of the offseason: sign Gerrit Cole.