The season is still young, but it’s never too early to start scouting midseason upgrades. If the start of the year has taught us anything, it’s that you can never have too much depth. The Yankees came into the season with an outfield practically overflowing with depth. Now? Not so much.
We’re just one week into the regular season, but spring training injuries to Clint Frazier and Jacoby Ellsbury followed by the quick losses of Aaron Hicks and Billy McKinney spread the team thin quickly.
Not only is depth important, but midseason is a time where impact pieces are available on the market. The Yankees acquired Sonny Gray, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle through trades last season, and they all are set to play key roles for the team both this season and into the future.
And nobody needs to be reminded of the offseason excitement of acquiring reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton. He’s already socked three dingers and given fans a glimpse of the incredible power he brings to any lineup. Offseason trade acquisition Brandon Drury has also shown flashes of the potential that drove Brian Cashman to make a move for him just before spring training.
So who are some assets the Yankees may be looking to move for as the season progresses? For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing on a mixture of short term rentals and controlled assets trapped on teams in the midst of the rebuilding process. Though Cashman has shown an affinity for thinking outside the box and moving in unexpected ways when he deems the price right, these players seem like likely targets that could be wearing pinstripes before the season is over.
The Yankees were linked extensively to Tigers SP Michael Fulmer this past offseason. Reports were circulating throughout December that Cashman was moving aggressively to acquire him, but nothing ever materialized.
Fulmer is still young at just 25 years old, but he already has an impressive body of work in the bigs. He debuted in 2016 with an impressive campaign that garnered him Rookie of the Year honors. He excelled at keeping the ball on the ground and limiting home runs, posting a 49.1% groundball rate and 0.91 HR/9, both significantly better than league average. This propelled him to a 3.06 ERA and 3.76 FIP in a season where he anchored the Tigers rotation.
There are a couple of potential warning flags hidden in Fulmer’s performance the past two seasons. He’s allowed hard contact at about a league average rate of 30.4% (league average 31.9%), and has below average strikeout statistics. Even so, he still projects as a solid 2 or 3 starter in any rotation in the league.
Much like Sonny Gray, perhaps the most attractive aspect of a potential Fulmer trade is the current status of his contract. He will be under team control through 2022, his age 29 season, meaning he could potentially be with the Yankees for four-plus seasons before hitting the open market.
The Tigers will obviously be wary of shipping off their young, controllable ace for anything less than a king’s ransom. They reportedly rejected an offer from the Yankees this offseason of Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, and a pitcher. However, the Tigers are a long way from competing and will be saddled with Miguel Cabrera‘s massive contract through at least 2023. The Yankees certainly have the prospects to pry Fulmer from Detroit, and if they do he could quickly become another key member of their excellent young rotation moving forward.
Ever since entering the league, Archer has flashed elite stuff and danced around the ace label. His velocity and wipeout slider have driven his impressive strikeout statistics, as he’s posted a K/9 above 10.4 each of the last three seasons. His swing and miss stuff peaked last year when he achieved a career best K/9 of 11.15, good for fifth best in the MLB.
That said, his peripherals have suffered over the past couple seasons due to an increase in fly balls and home runs allowed. His FB% has steadily risen from an excellent 31.1% in 2014 to a worse than league-average 36% last year. This was accompanied by a climb from 0.55 to 1.21 HR/9 over the same time span. Those characteristics will be especially concerning to the Yankees, as they play in a notoriously hitter and home run friendly park. Nonetheless, similar concerns swirled around Sonny before his trade from Oakland last season. While his Yankees tenure hasn’t been off-the-charts spectacular, he quietly put up a 3.72 ERA after coming to New York.
Despite the red flags, there’s no question Archer has the stuff to be a success with the Yankees and become a key member of the pitching staff. He’s battle tested in the AL East, and seems to have the bulldog mentality needed to thrive under the bright lights in the Bronx.
Like Fulmer, he has the added benefit of being on an incredibly team friendly contract. He has two years remaining on the extension he signed with the Rays back in 2014, with two club options in 2020 and 2021. Even if both of those options are exercised, the AAV on his remaining contract is still just over $7.5 million.
Obviously this would be an absolute steal, even in the current market. While the Rays will likely be wary of sending their staff ace to an AL East rival, the Rays are focused on the future and might be tempted by the right prospect package. If the Yankees managed to steal him, he would immediately plug in as a top 3 starter in their rotation and make them one of the toughest pitching staffs in the league from 1 through 5.
Like many Yankee fans, it’s still weird to adjust to the thought of Cole Hamels as a seasoned veteran pitching for the Texas Rangers. He’s cemented in my mind as the young ace starring for the Phillies during their back-to-back World Series runs in ’08 and ’09.
Hamels doesn’t check many of the boxes that made Fulmer and Archer prime candidates. He’s not young, having turned 34 over the offseason. His stats have matched the decline you’d expect to see from a pitcher of that age, with his strikeout rate plummeting and a massive spike in his hard contact allowed. His 4.20 ERA and 4.63 FIP were some of the worst marks of his career dating back to when he had just entered the big leagues.
On top of that, he’s owed $22.5 million this season, and would be owed an additional $20 million in the unlikely event his club option is exercised after this season. So with all this in mind, why move for an expensive, declining veteran?
The main answer is the associated price in terms of prospects. Since luxury tax money is assessed on a pro-rated basis, the Yankees would have enough room to absorb the approximately $10-13 million left on his deal after acquiring him. And with the Rangers’ window closing quickly (Fangraphs projected 77-85 record), they may be willing to offload an expiring deal at a relatively low prospect cost. Even though Hamels isn’t the ace he once was, he could be a nice midseason addition if the Yankees find themselves suffering on SP depth around the trade deadline.
Best of the rest
These three starting pitcher targets represent just a fraction of the potential moves Brian Cashman and the Yanks might conceivably make. Starting pitchers Lance Lynn (MIN), Garett Richards (LAA), Patrick Corbin (ARI), Matt Harvey (NYM), and Hisashi Iwakuma (SEA) are all upcoming free agents on teams that could be fringe wild card contenders around the middle of the season.
Should any of their teams severely underachieve and shift to a selling position, all of these players could be useful rentals to help propel the team to a 2018 title. Danny Duffy (KC) and Julio Teheran (ATL) are relatively young, talented starters trapped in the midst of rebuilding projects at their respective clubs.
The only position player worth mentioning on this list is Manny Machado. The Yankees are clearly extremely interested in the Orioles SS and, according to reports, pursued him aggressively this offseason. The Orioles have been adamant about competing this season and holding on to their expiring assets.
However, with core players Zach Britton and Brad Brach also set to be free agents after this season, a bad first half could potentially lead to a firesale that includes Machado being shipped off. If that’s the case, the Yankees could pursue him in the hopes of both boosting their World Series chances this season and convincing him to sign long term before he hits free agency.
With all this being said, it’s impossible to predict what the Yankees and the rest of the league will look like in a couple of months. Positions of apparent strength could turn to weaknesses in a second, surprising prospects could step up and mitigate the need to look for external help, and teams will inevitably over or underperform leading to a different calculus at the trade deadline. But don’t be surprised if one or more of these players is wearing the NY on their hats and dancing on the field in November when the Yankees celebrate number 28.