Brian Cashman spoke to reporters for more than an hour Tuesday, and something was missing that was present whenever the Yankees general manager engaged reporters in previous years after his team was eliminated:
Questions about how to fix the team’s pitching.
Besides updating a few injury issues such as with Jameson Taillon, Cashman responded to inquiries on Aaron Boone’s return, coaching departures and how he viewed various positional elements.
That reflected a 2021 season in which the depth and effectiveness of the Yankees’ pitching represented the strength of the team and that, aside from Corey Kluber, every other major contributor is due back.
This is not to say the Yankees’ pitching is without question. Heck, is there anything bigger than wondering in a post-sticky-substance world whether Gerrit Cole is an ace of aces or just a really good starter on a record contract? My suspicion is that MLB and the union will agree to either a tacky baseball or a tacky substance that helps pitchers, and between that and Cole’s pitching intellect and competitiveness, he will remain elite.
Still, even if that is true and you trust in 2021 breakouts from Nestor Cortes Jr., Clay Holmes and Jonathan Loaisiga, the Yanks should not fixate on just improving a positional core with more athleticism, defense and contact skills — though that obviously is Job 1 of the winter.
The Yankees’ rotation has depth and talent, but enough uncertainty that it can use one more piece. Zack Britton (likely to miss all of 2022 after Tommy John surgery), Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green will all be entering their walk seasons, and though the Yanks have a nice core of pen arm, for 2022, one more trustworthy, late-inning piece with control beyond next season would be helpful. Here are five pitchers who I particularly find intriguing for the Yanks:
He has made one start in the past two seasons as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. But another two-time AL Cy Young winner, Kluber, had made just eight starts in the two years before the Yanks gave him a one-year, $11 million pact. If you are going to worry about Cole and sticky stuff dating to his time with the Astros, the concerns would be similar with Verlander. But Lance McCullers Jr. (now injured) and Charlie Morton, who blossomed on the Astros, looked just fine this season and in the playoffs.
Verlander is a gamble beyond the injury and sticky stuff. The Astros almost certainly will put the $18.4 million qualifying offer on him, which means if he rejects that a signing team will lose draft picks and have to sign him for more dollars. Verlander turns 39 in February.
But the Yanks are positioned to take a gamble to chase the upside — as long as Hal Stienbrenner is fine expanding the payroll significantly. The Yanks should have enough depth to protect Verlander with Cole, Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino as rotation locks, Cortes, Domingo German and Michael King either in the bullpen or at Triple-A (all have options left), and Luis Gil, Clarke Schmidt and — the Yanks hope — a fixed Deivi Garcia given more Triple-A time or (with Verlander) more easily used in trades, particularly for positional help.
I suspect the Yanks will not be at the top of the market with Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman or Marcus Stroman, or willing to gamble on medical question marks Carlos Rodon or Clayton Kershaw (if Kershaw even had interest in playing in New York). Verlander could be Kluber 2 — just not enough health and consistency. But he also could be, if all goes well, starting Game 2 of a playoff series behind Cole.
He has much in common with Verlander: He is coming off Tommy John surgery, has hardly pitched the past two years, and the Mets likely will put the qualifying offer on him. He might just be a tease, but he is one talented tease. If he takes a multiyear deal, the Yanks should be out. But if Syndergaard were willing to take a big one-year pact to re-establish himself for next year’s market, he becomes more attractive.
I will mention two other free-agent starters I like: Eduardo Rodriguez (who will probably get the qualifying offer from the Red Sox) and Alex Wood. Both lefties have health red flags. But I think both are unafraid of big moments and, thus, could handle New York.
As with Verlander and Syndergaard, the Yanks would have to do a deep dive on the medicals. Lopez missed nearly three months last year after a rotator cuff strain before starting the last game of Miami’s season.
The Marlins’ strength is young pitching depth with Sandy Alcantara and Trevor Rogers in the majors leading the way. Unless they are going on an unexpected spending spree, Miami is going to have to use the depth to gain balance with young hitters.
If the Yankees are not willing to spend big on a free-agent shortstop such as Corey Seager or Marcus Semien, then they should also be talking to Miami about Miguel Rojas — who offers defense, league average offense and savvy. Rojas is just the kind of player that a team in the Marlins’ situation should be looking to maximize: He will play at 33 next year, he is on a great deal ($5.5 million) and a replacement (Jazz Chisholm) is present. But I think Miami loves this player, and that will blind it to the reality that Rojas is unlikely to be part of the core of the next contending Marlin team.
Oakland has four players heading to big arbitration paydays: starting pitchers Chris Bassit and Sean Manaea, who are free agents after next season, and corner infielders Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. A club with the A’s annual payroll restraints will have be challenged to keep them all.
Like many teams, I could see the Yankees being interested in all of them individually or in combinations — and I would throw in the multi-positional, athletic, high-contact lefty-swinging Tony Kemp.
For other trades, I don’t imagine the Reds are ready to part with Luis Castillo yet, nor the Diamondbacks with Zac Gallen nor the Phillies with Aaron Nola, even if Nola could be a gateway to improve the overall fabric of their roster. I think the Yankees should only consider the injury risk and two years at $37 million left with Yu Darvish if in conjunction it gives them a chance at Jake Cronenworth for shortstop or Trent Grisham in center.
I watched every Yankees at-bat against the righty this year, and they were 0-for-12 with eight strikeouts, and that might make me biased. But it is more than that. Iglesias comfortably gets more than three outs. He could be used as an attack dog in front of Chapman, then be the closer replacement in a year, allowing Holmes and Loaisiga to continue to be deployed whenever needed.
After significant free-agent investments in Britton and Chapman, the Yanks might want out of the high-priced relief market, especially for a closer with home run susceptibility. But Iglesias is a durable, fearless strike-thrower with the potential to make the Yankees’ endgame overpowering.
If the Yanks prefer not to shop atop the market, Collin McHugh offers multi-role, multi-inning possibilities.
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