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Examining potential Yankees SP trade targets

Despite Sunday’s tough loss, there’s no question the Yankees are gaining steam as we approach the All Star break.

Now winners of seven of their last eight games, the team has been riding a mix of improved starting pitching and brute offensive force during the mini-streak. The team is slowly returning to full strength with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton reentering the mix this past week. The addition of Edwin Encarnacion has only increased the firepower in the Yankees lineup.

But despite this rosy outlook, there are warning signs flashing when it comes to the rotation. J.A. Happ continues to allow home runs at an alarming rate, and the team has been forced into using Chad Green as an opener for the past couple weeks. And while Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and CC Sabathia have been solid, none have been able to give the team significant length. Being forced into a four-man rotation with few starters ever reaching the sixth inning is a recipe for bullpen burnout late in the year.

Yes, the Yankees are optimistic that staff ace and workhorse Luis Severino will return in the second half. If he is even 75 percent of the dominant pitcher he was in the first half of last year, he’ll surpass anything the Yankees can currently get on the market. And yes, Jordan Montgomery is due to return hopefully sometime in August. But the possibility of injury setback is significant as both of these starters rehab from injuries in their throwing arms. And it is unlikely if not impossible that the team will survive the next 85 games without a single injury to another starter. As the old adage goes, you can never have enough pitching.

With all this in mind, now seems a good time to survey the potential starting pitching options on the trade market. Of course, this list is not comprehensive but rather seeks to evaluate some of the names being linked with the team right now. Cashman is anything but predictable, and there is a chance the team moves for someone out of the blue in the next month. But each of the guys I’m about to discuss are great pitchers trapped on potential sellers, so they seem the most logical to survey at this early stage.

For each pitcher, I’m going to give some basics on age and team control, before breaking down the case for the Yankees acquiring or avoiding them. Let’s take a look at some of the starters that may be in pinstripes in the second half.

Madison Bumgarner

Age: Turning 30 on August 1, 2019

Contract: Free agent after this season, $12 million AAV

2019 Season: 4.28 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 8.66 K/9, 1.96 BB/9, 1.49 HR/9

Why it makes sense: Let’s start with the obvious. The Yankees have one goal in 2019, and it’s not to win 100 games again — it’s to bring home their 28th championship. While surviving the regular season with a division title is no doubt important, all acquisitions should be made with the playoffs in mind. And Bumgarner is an all time great playoff pitcher.

In 102.1 career playoff innings, Bumgarner has a mind-boggling 2.11 ERA. He is most remembered for his historic 2014 run, where he threw 52.2 innings as both a starter and reliever to the tune of a 1.03 ERA. His efforts secured the Giants another World Series, and he was awarded the MVP of the series for single-handedly dragging his team to victory.

Beyond that, Bumgarner remains a workhorse. He has already thrown 96.2 innings this year, averaging 6 IP per start and has not spent a day on the IL thus far in 2019. With the Yankees struggling to get length out of their starters, Bumgarner would solidify the rotation and help give the bullpen some much needed rest.

Why it doesn’t make sense: Because he isn’t the same Madison Bumgarner we all remember. He has allowed significantly more hard contact this year than at any other point in his career, which is contributing to his mediocre ERA and peripherals. His 42.4% hard hit rate is 9 full points above his career average, and puts him in the bottom quartile of all starters this year. This is manifesting itself in more home runs and fewer ground balls than any other season he has pitched.

But even though he’s not the same dominant Bumgarner of old, you can be sure the Giants will be asking teams to pay up like he is. Bumgarner is beloved in San Francisco, and management is guaranteed to ask for a king’s ransom for a player who will be a pure rental for the second half of 2019. Between his declining performance and presumed astronomical asking price, there are plenty of reasons to think the Yankees would be well served to stay away from the southpaw.

Max Scherzer

Age: Turning 35 on July 27, 2019

Contract: Free agent after 2021, $30 million AAV

2019 Season: 2.62 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 1.06 WHIP, 12.36 K/9, 1.86 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9

Why it makes sense: Because he’s still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Scherzer is like a proverbial fine wine, he gets better as he ages. Since joining the Nationals on a mega-contract in 2015, Scherzer has never posted an ERA above 3.00 and has eclipsed 200 IP every single year. He has put himself solidly in the Hall of Fame conversation with three Cy Young awards, and continues to justify every dollar the Nationals have paid him.

Unlike Bumgarner, Scherzer has showed no signs of slowing. His peripherals remain remarkably robust, as evidenced by his microscopic 2.19 FIP and his consistently excellent batted ball profile. When it comes to Max Scherzer the baseball player, there is truly nothing not to like. In a vacuum, you trade the farm for a guy like him, who would instantly transform the Yankees from title contender to odds-on favorite.

Why it doesn’t make sense: Put simply, Scherzer might not be for sale at any price. The Nationals are owned by the Lerner family, and former kingpin Ted Lerner will turn 94 this October. He and his son are reportedly desperate to bring a championship back to DC, which has led to some stubborn if not outright foolish decisions in the past couple years. Despite the ability to bring in a massive haul for impending free agent Bryce Harper last year, the Lerner’s refused to sell and missed the playoffs with an 82-80 record.

There’s no reason to believe the situation will be any different with Scherzer. He is under control for two and a half more years, and the Lerners will surely believe they can build another championship contender with him anchoring their rotation. While it may be foolish, the Yankees will be out of luck if Nationals ownership vetoes a potential deal.

And though I personally disagree with it, there is also an argument that Scherzer would tie the Yankees hands financially in future offseasons. With several massive contracts already on the books, adding another $30 million per year may preclude the team from extending current stars or chasing a younger free agent. But frankly I find this line of complaint preposterous. Scherzer is one of the best to do it, and it would be asinine to let money prevent a deal from happening if it is indeed possible.

Trevor Bauer

Age: Turning 29 on January 17, 2020

Contract: Free agent after 2020, $13 million AAV, arbitration eligible next season

2019 Season: 3.69 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, 9.77 K/9, 3.69 BB/9, 1.20 HR/9

Why it makes sense: He may be odd off the field, but Trevor Bauer is a damn good baseball player. He broke out last season, putting up ace-like numbers that eclipsed even those of staff stalwart Corey Kluber. At his best, Bauer is a strikeout machine and true workhorse, averaging more than 6 IP per start and posting an 11.34 K/9 in his 2018 All Star campaign.

Bauer boasts an extensive arsenal that includes an elite spin-rate fastball, a wipeout slider, and several other complementary pitches that he mixes in to stifle hitters. As a cheap, controllable, high quality starter, he checks many of the boxes that you look for in a potential trade acquisition. His experience pitching out of the bullpen in the playoffs under manager Terry Francona is also a plus. That flexibility could allow him to fulfill a role like that of Bumgarner or Nathan Eovaldi (ugh) in postseasons past, adding to his potential value to the Yankees.

Why it doesn’t make sense: Like Scherzer, it’s pretty simple. The Indians might not be sellers at the deadline. The Twins are currently running away with the AL Central, but the Indians are narrowly clinging to the second Wild Card spot with a 42-35 record. In a different market, there would be no question that the team would be buyers at the deadline and look to build another championship contender.

But Cleveland’s ownership has already displayed their inability to sustain their current payroll. They sold several key assets over the summer to shed money off the books, and there’s a chance they may not be able to afford Bauer’s significant arbitration salary next year. If they are looking to maximize assets, now is the time to sell. But it will be hard to justify shipping off one of their best starters in the midst of a closing championship window to a rabid fan base that has endured so many years of losing.

Beyond that, there’s always a chance that Bauer’s eccentric personality is not a good fit for the New York media market. He is notorious for being outspoken on social media, something that might not fly with the Yankees brass. Though I think “fit” is overblown, there’s always the possibility that Bauer is one of the acquisitions that fans and the media torpedo from day one. This is clearly secondary to the chance he’s just not available, but he will surely face character scrutiny from Cashman and his nerds before the team feels comfortable shipping away a boatload of key prospects.

Marcus Stroman

Age: Turning 29 on May 1, 2020

Contract: Free agent after 2020, $7.4 million AAV, arbitration eligible next season

2019 Season: 3.04 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 6.88 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, 0.80 HR/9

Why it makes sense: Coming off a disastrous 2018, Stroman has quickly returned to form as one of the top competitors in the game. Always doubted due to his small, 5′ 8″ frame, Stroman has made a living by relying on his sinker to generate ground balls. His 58.0% groundball rate is second among qualified starters, a quality that dovetails with his 0.80 HR/9 to make him a prime candidate for Yankee Stadium.

And, much like the other pitchers listed above, Stroman has demonstrated an ability to go deep in games, averaging just under 6 IP per start. Never known for his strikeout abilities, Stroman compensates by effectively limiting hard contact and particularly avoiding “Barrels”, the worst outcome for a pitcher. His .292 xwOBA is in the 75th percentile among starters this year, and indicates that his success is sustainable despite his lack of a wipeout pitch. Stroman would undoubtedly be another welcome addition to the Yankee rotation.

Why it doesn’t make sense: Lack of a proven postseason record is really the only knock against Stroman. He featured heavily in the Blue Jays’ 2015 and 2016 playoff runs, pitching to a somewhat disappointing 4.40 ERA in 30.2 IP. But in 2015 Stroman was returning from a torn ACL, which he suffered in March and remarkably recovered from in just 6 months to make the postseason roster. Though his lack of a record is a legitimate gripe, Stroman is a consummate gamer and I have confidence he’d shine under the bright lights of the Bronx in October.

Besides that, there are fewer hurdles with Stroman than any name listed above. The Blue Jays will clearly be sellers of any and all assets at the deadline, in the midst of a complete teardown that sees them at 29-49 as of today. Unlike other AL East teams, the Blue Jays have never hesitated to deal within the division, as evidenced by last year’s trade of JA Happ to the Yankees before the deadline. And though he will of course come at a cost, the Yankees would likely be able to hold onto top prospect Estevan Florial and possibly even Clint Frazier in a deal.

Conclusion

Any of these four guys would solidify the Yankee rotation and make the team better as they chase another World Series title. But, in my opinion, Marcus Stroman seems far and away the most likely acquisition of the bunch. Yes, I too dream about Mad Max tossing a 20 strikeout gem in front of the adoring crowd in the Bronx. But I remain extremely doubtful that the Nationals will ever part with their franchise cornerstone, even as they continue to slip out of the playoff picture. Bumgarner will command a ridiculous prospect price that does not match the pitcher he is today. And I still believe the Indians will look to remain competitive in 2019 despite their payroll crunch.

Marcus Stroman seems resigned to the Blue Jays not extending him, and has expressed an interest in moving to a contending team. What better place for him than New York, where his hunger to win would instantly make him a fan favorite. Though we won’t get to see him in this week’s series, keep an eye on Stroman over the course of this next month. He’s almost certain to be shipped out of Toronto, and don’t be surprised if Brian Cashman arranges a homecoming for the Long Island native before the trade deadline this July.

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