Maybe the newly cost-conscious Yankees can still find room for Edwin Jackson (or Roy Oswalt, or Hiroki Kuroda)
All winter long, the New York Yankees have been trying to square their new fiscal discipline with the realities of their old pitching staff.
The Yankees enter 2012 eager to stay clear of long-term contracts, with a significant financial advantage in getting payroll below $189 million by 2014, thanks to luxury-tax provisions in baseball's new collective-bargaining agreement signed this past fall. (They've remained between $200-210 million in payroll over the past few seasons.)
As a result, free-agent options like C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle went elsewhere—the Yankees declined to bid on either one. Both Wilson and Buehrle were overpriced commodities, but both could have helped a Yankee rotation with major needs.
Considering that New York returns just one pitcher who logged more than 170 innings at an ERA under 5—CC Sabathia—adding depth is a must to compete with a retooled Tampa Bay and talented Boston teams, to say nothing of an improving Toronto Blue Jays squad.
But a funny thing has happened to the starting-pitcher market. With spring training about a month away, a number of quality arms remain unsigned, and suddenly it doesn't seem inconceivable that the Yankees can acquire an impact pitcher on the free-agent market without surrendering a long-term contract.
Three likely suspects are lined up for New York. The first is Edwin Jackson, a pitcher with an ace-quality repertoire but roughly third-starter results. He'll be entering his age-28 season, yet the Yankees would be his seventh organization. Jackson's agent, Scott Boras, met with the Yankees this week.
His last four seasons have featured three seasons of roughly 200 innings or more (his 2011 checked in at 199 and 2/3), with ERAs ranging from 3.62 to 4.47. Put another way, that means his baseline performance over the last four years is still better than anyone on the current Yankee staff not named Sabathia.
Boras is likely to employ the calculus he has many other times, notably with third baseman Adrian Beltre and just recently, with closer Ryan Madson. If a lucrative long-term deal isn't possible, he'll sign the best-possible one-year deal for his client, trusting that a good season will help to make next winter a better bet.
That certainly worked for Beltre, who signed for one year, $9 million with the Red Sox in 2010, responding to a soft market following a down year. After excelling for Boston, he inked a five-year, $80 million pact with the Texas Rangers.
So if Boras wants a lot of money short-term, the Yankees are more concerned with long-term financial austerity, and the team roster certainly needs someone like Edwin Jackson, well, this would all make sense.
If a deal with Jackson doesn't happen (say another team jumps in with a three-year deal, for example) there are a couple of other likely possibilities to fill his spot.
Roy Oswalt, 34, has been one of the better pitchers in baseball for a decade, mostly with the Astros, and most recently with the Phillies. Only his back problems, which limited him to 139 innings in 2011, have caused teams to shy away from signing him.
Prior to last season, Oswalt was a workhorse, registering at least 211 1/3 innings and an ERA at 3.54 or lower in five of his six seasons from 2005-2010. Considering that he was very much the same Oswalt in the final two months of the 2011 season, he's a solid bet on a one-year deal as well.
Then there's Hiroki Kuroda, the Japanese import formerly with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kuroda will be 37 in 2012, but he's been consistently effective since coming over in 2008, with ERAs between 3.07 and 3.76, and as many as 183 1/3 innings in three of four seasons. Better still, his best ERA and most innings pitched came in 2011, so there's little reason to think he's slowing down.
It is mostly age that is keeping Kuroda from landing a long-term deal. There's some risk involved in how Kuroda will translate from the more hitter-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium, and the National League in general, but he, too, could conceivably be the Yankees' number-two starter.
Consider that the failure to add one of these pitchers could put the Yankees in the unusual position of worrying about whether they've got enough pitching talent even to get to the playoffs. In that context, a $12-15 million outlay for a season becomes entirely reasonable for any of these pitchers. The Yankees could even go to two years, or more likely, one year with an easily reachable vesting option, and still stay clear of that 2014 luxury-tax penalty.
Of course, they could steer clear of these pitchers altogether. But that would be a risk, and the Yankees' brain trust isn't in the habit of leaving things to chance.