If the Yankees have felt a sense of urgency to pursue an additional starting pitcher since Jordan Montgomery underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery last week, perhaps that impulse has intensified due to the recent hamstring injuries inhibiting Masahiro Tanaka.
At the moment, the Yankees are without their No. 2 or No. 5 Opening Day rotation arms, and although the team has one of the best records in baseball, starting pitching has been their biggest deficiency. The front office was aware of this during the winter.
Since the pitching market will be relatively thin at this summer’s non-waiver trade deadline, general manager Brian Cashman and his staff may have to think outside the box and get the creative juices flowing in their search.
But the Yankees’ situation is straightforward, according to former Mets general manager and current MLB Network Radio host Steve Phillips.
“I do think they’re going to need to upgrade their rotation a little bit,” Phillips told Bronx Pinstripes in a phone interview Thursday. “Beyond [Luis] Severino, I think they’ve got some real questions… I think the sooner they can get another starting pitcher, the better. And I think it’s going to be critical to win the division, let alone to advance in the postseason.”
The front office has been adamant in their goal to remain under the $197-million luxury tax threshold this season, and the Yankees have approximately $12 million left to spend without crossing that threshold. Owner Hal Steinbrenner is aware of this, and he told reporters Wednesday their pursuit of an additional pitcher shouldn’t obstruct any plans.
“We purposely left a decent amount of money for just this.” Steinbrenner said. “I absolutely think, if we decide to go get a pitcher and if a pitcher’s available, I think we definitely have the flexibility to allow me to [stay under the luxury-tax threshold].”
So, who should the Yankees target? Much of the conversation has revolved around Rangers’ 34-year-old southpaw Cole Hamels, who makes $22.5 million this season ($20 million club option in 2019, $6 million buyout). If the Yankees believe he’s the right fit, they could persuade Texas to eat a chunk of money leftover on Hamels’ contract in exchange for valued prospects.
“Hamels has the postseason pedigree. He’s got that veteran presence that fits a Yankee team,” Phillips said of Hamels, who has a 2.93 ERA in his last 10 starts against teams with records over the .500 mark this year. “If CC [Sabathia] is not back next year and Hamels takes that spot, maybe there’s that sort of swap for next season. I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker for the Yankees.”
Phillips also views Blue Jays’ veteran lefty JA Happ as a worthy trade candidate. In 14 starts this season, the 35-year-old is 8-3 with a 3.48 ERA, and he has a career 3.39 ERA in 67 starts against AL East opponents.
“For me, he’s a guy that if teams want to get him and they’re going to play the Yankees, he’s got really good numbers against some of the important playoff teams,” Phillips said. “He’s pitched well in the American League East. So, I think Happ and Hamels seem to be the two lead guys.”
This means the other names floating around — Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin, Rays’ Chris Archer, and Tigers’ Michael Fulmer stand out — shouldn’t really be considered feasible or worthwhile options right now.
“I can’t imagine the Mets are going to trade either of those guys,” said Phillips, who was the Mets’ GM from 1997 to 2003. “They’re trying to win next year, too. So, in order to do it, they’re going to need guys like deGrom and Syndergaard. I don’t see the Mets’ plan including any availability there. I don’t see the Mets taking it apart.”
However, if the Mets receive an offer they can’t refuse, Phillips doesn’t see why they can’t do business with the Yankees — even though trades between the crosstown rivals are a rare occurrence. It wasn’t taboo to Phillips two decades ago, and it’s not taboo to the Steinbrenners or Wilpons, to Cashman or Sandy Alderson now.
“I never had any edict of not making a trade with the Yankees. I actually did it,” Phillips said. “I never was hesitant to trade within the division or within the town. It didn’t bother me at all to do that.
“The deals that are the best are the ones that are win-win trades, anyway, because it helps you have willing trade partners in the future as well. Brian Cashman was never reluctant to do it in the conversations that I had with him.”
The biggest question in all of this is, which players and top-rated prospects will the Yankees deem available in discussions? The team is quite fond of Rookie of the Year candidates Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, who have been impact players since late April.
Should those two even be listed under the categories of “untouchable” or “prospects?” The club could argue Torres and Andujar are already established big leaguers, based on their numbers and makeup alone.
“They seem to be core parts of their major league team, so I would suspect that any deal Brian Cashman is going to listen on would not include them,” Phillips said of Torres and Andujar. “Last year, when Brian Cashman was having trade discussions, people would ask about them and he would say, ‘Yeah, we’re not moving them, but we’ll move anybody but those guys.’
“I can’t imagine that changes now that they’re successful major league players. He wouldn’t move them last year. Now that they’re actually up in the big leagues and are major contributors, I think they’re completely off-limits. Listen, you never say anybody’s untouchable, but some are more untouchable than others, and they’re pretty untouchable right now.”
Phillips also doesn’t think the Yankees need more sluggers — like Orioles’ star Manny Machado, who will become a free agent this upcoming winter — when the luxury tax resets. Phillips likes the Yankees’ current infield group moving forward.
“If Machado is on their radar for next year, then yes, I think you’re more likely to trade Andujar than Torres. But I wouldn’t do anything of that if I’m the Yankees. Machado doesn’t fit,” Phillips said. “Why spend that money when you don’t need to spend that money? They made their big money play with Giancarlo Stanton. They don’t need to upgrade second, short, and third right now.”
With Torres and Andujar off the table, this leaves top-ranked youngsters like Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Estevan Florial, and Chance Adams as potential package pieces. Phillips says parting ways with these names shouldn’t discourage the Yankees from making a deal that makes them better in the short-term.
“What general managers told me last year is that the Yankees’ farm system is so deep, one guy told me for a lot of organizations, [the Yankees’] 30th-best prospect is a Top-10 guy in most organizations,” Phillips said. “They’re just loaded with depth and talent. They’re not in a position where they have to worry about depth. They’re going to have something for everybody.
“Listen, Florial, Sheffield, and Adams and [Luis] Medina, there’s plenty of options. You can go well down their list and that will satisfy most other teams with somebody on that list or at least a few guys.”
The Yankees will need to get their hands dirty soon if they want to make a deep postseason push. And it’s up to Cashman to play the farm system to his advantage while manning the phones.
“I’d love for there to be another predictable starting pitcher [on the Yankees] because it’s not just about winning in October,” Phillips said. “You don’t want to be the wild card team. You want to win the division.”