The 2011 Yankees and the rent-a-staff approach to pitching
With much of baseball's offseason activity completed, the New York Yankees find themselves in an unfamiliar position. They are short on pitching, and despite a huge sum of money available to spend and plenty of prospects to trade, they haven't been able to acquire any reliable starters this winter.
An effort to sign Cliff Lee, the best free agent on the market, fizzled when Lee turned down the seven guaranteed years from the Yankees in favor of a five-year deal with Philadelphia. Milwaukee acquired former Cy Young Award winner Zach Greinke from Kansas City, with the Yankees wary of Greinke's history of psychological issues. And even Andy Pettitte, a mainstay in the New York rotation for years, looks likely to retire.
The remaining top-flight pitchers all belong to other teams. And either teams are unwilling to discuss the level of pitcher the Yankees covet, or the Yankees are uninterested in paying the huge premium in prospects it would take to pry any of them loose.
So that leaves free agency, and frankly, the remaining group is uninspiring. Here's the best of the lot:
Carl Pavano has the best recent track record of the remaining pitchers available. Many Yankee fans stopped reading, but for those who continued, Pavano logged 221 innings in 2010, pitched to a 3.75 ERA, and walked just 37 batters. It was his best season since 2004, when he pitched to a 3.00 ERA for the Marlins heading into free agency, leading the Yankees to spend $39.95 million over four years on him.
For their funds, they got 26 starts over four years, constant injury complaints, and a clubhouse that became convinced he didn't really want to pitch. So even if the Yankees decided to sign him, they'd have a fan revolt on par with the one some people imagined would happen if Derek Jeter left.
As for the other options, there's Kevin Millwood (5.10 ERA in 2010), Brian Bannister (6.34 ERA in 2010), Jeremy Bonderman (5.53 ERA in 2010), Rodrigo Lopez (5.00 ERA in 2010—in the National League) and Dave Bush (4.54 ERA in 2010, also in the National League). These are, at least, healthy arms.
Then there's a bin filled with once-good and even once-great pitchers who haven't been healthy or active for some time. On the recently injured list, there's Doug Davis, Justin Duchscherer, Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis, Chris Young, John Maine and Brad Penny. Among the recently retired are Pedro Martinez, who last pitched for the Phillies in 2009, and Jarrod Washburn, who last pitched for Detroit in 2009.
It's no surprise then, with so little free agent talent available, that teams are locking up even the moderately useful pitchers. For example, the Marlins recently gave Ricky Nolasco, a pitcher with a 4.51 ERA in 2010 and 5.06 in 2009, a three-year contract extension worth $26.5 million. Had they failed to, the Marlins could have entertained offers on Nolasco from a large number of teams.
The Yankees, as previously mentioned, have a ludicrous stockpile of pitching prospects. Dellin Betances, Manuel Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, Adam Warren and David Phelps could all help the major league club in the near future. But all of them would probably benefit from at least starting the year at Triple-A, and immediate major-league success from any of them would be unlikely.
In short, the Yankees have, essentially, a 2011 problem. By the time teams are ready to deal, in June or July, a short-handed pitching staff may have cost them precious games they cannot recover, particularly in a division with a re-tooled Boston, talented Tampa Bay, and improved Toronto. (Theoretically, Baltimore is also better.)
The only answer may be, strange as it sounds, to buy in bulk. Get Millwood and Bannister, whose ERAs may be higher than they deserved, add Duchscherer, Webb and Penny, all of whom were effective in their most recent healthy stints. Throw some money at Pedro Martinez, who was quite effective for the Phillies in 2009, as well. But for all of them, one-year deals.
Between the six of them, the Yankees will only need two to pan out, or possibly three, should A.J. Burnett fail to recover. Together, their one-year deals wouldn't cost much—maybe a total of around $15-20 million. And the presence of all six greatly increases the chance that the Yankees can get two useful starters.
Would that money be better spent on a pair of likely useful starters? Sure. But those pitchers aren't available. And if they were, the Yankees wouldn't get a pair of them for just $15-20 million, nor get away with committing only to a one-year deal. Remember, by 2012, the Yankees probably won't want these pitchers around. They'll want to begin the Betances/Banuelos/Brackman era, with Warren and Phelps ready to step in.
That's really New York's only play now, other than sending Brian Cashman to Andy Pettitte's front lawn with a boom box blasting “In Your Eyes."