J.A. Happ’s impending return to the Yankees means the club will soon have five starting pitchers qualified to fill five rotation spots. But nothing will prevent Brian Cashman from searching for a sixth.
According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the 36-year-old Happ will receive a two-year, $34 million deal that could include a $17 million option in 2021 if he meets particular innings benchmarks. And while this move — along with the November trade acquisition of Mariners’ southpaw James Paxton — allows the Yankees to check off the top needs on their winter wish list, Cashman isn’t opposed to pursuing additional rotation arms in the coming days and weeks.
“I’m going to be open-minded to everything,” Cashman told the YES Network during Wednesday’s edition of Yankees Hot Stove. “So, if I do import one more starter, that doesn’t mean I’m not open-minded to still exploring other available players on the marketplace that happen to be starting pitchers. Doesn’t mean I can’t pivot and not just adjust along the run with my roster.
“Again, we’re going to take all the information we can — whether it’s our scouts, our analysts, or me direct with the opposing GM’s or agents — and like a bee with honey, go back to the hive and then we’ll kick it around and see if we can somehow repackage it. And it might not make sense initially, but it could make sense some other way. We need to vet everything at all times to make sure we’re doing the best we can in terms of our decision making.”
If the Yankees remain intrigued by the notion of swapping major-league ready youngsters or top-ranked prospects for another ace-type rotation piece, the Cleveland Indians may be the perfect trade partner. Last week, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported that the Indians, facing market constraints, are “increasingly motivated” to trade either Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer in order to shed more payroll ahead of next season. According to multiple reports, the Yankees have been in contact with Cleveland, who has set steep asking prices for all interested teams.
In 33 starts this season, Kluber, 32, went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA — fifth-best among qualifying AL starters — and he also led the league in innings (215) and finished third in strikeouts (222).
If those numbers aren’t enticing enough, in four of his last five seasons, Kluber has posted an ERA of 3.14 or less and won at least 18 games. Plus, he’s proven to be a durable three-time All-Star, as he’s averaged 32 starts per year since winning his first of two Cy Young awards in 2014.
Bauer, who turns 28 in January, finished 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA in 28 games (27 starts) this year, and he led the AL in fielding independent pitching (2.44) and fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (0.5). He also received All-Star honors.
As for the dollars and cents, both right-handers are cost-controlled. According to Spotrac.com, Kluber is slated to make $17.2 million in 2019, and the final two years of his contract (2020-21) include club options at $17.5 million and $18 million, respectively, with a pair of $1 million buyouts. Bauer is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, and MLB Trade Rumors projects he will make roughly $11.6 million in 2019.
The Yankees were also recently linked to Mets’ right-hander Noah Syndergaard in a rumored three-way deal with the Miami Marlins, but that proposal never picked up steam. Syndergaard, who is arbitration eligible until 2022, went 13-4 with a 3.03 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 155 strikeouts in 25 starts (154.1 innings) in 2018.
Of course, the Yankees can scour the free agent market for another back-end rotation arm. One possibility is 27-year-old lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who was recently posted by the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball organization. In 23 starts for Seibu this season, Kikuchi finished 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts across 163.2 innings. Back in November, Yankees’ owner Hal Steinbrenner told reporters that he watched film of Kikuchi during the club’s pro scouting meetings, and Kyodo News baseball writer Jim Allen reported that the Yankees were one of seven major league teams that sent scouts to watch Kikuchi in September.
In the meantime, the Yankees are pleased with the addition of Happ, who Cashman says gives him “comfort.” It comes as no surprise, as Happ went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees after coming over from the Toronto Blue Jays in a trade this past July.
“All we can do is pace along with what our comfort level is on things and go from there and then react accordingly,” Cashman told YES. “We have our lines out to various trade partners and various free agents of target and we’re just waiting to get a bite. A bite that we can actually hopefully reel somebody in and see where it takes us…
“Every day, things can change in this game, and that’s why you have to be able to react to it.”