The Yankees need to replace the 400 innings (2 pitcher slots) that they lost when Andy Pettitte retired and Phil Hughes signed with the Minnesota Twins. One slot will likely be filled after a spring training competition between Adam Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Michael Pineda. The Yankees are hoping to fill the other slot with Masahiro Tanaka. He is their best option and definitely should be their first choice. However, there is a lot of competition for his services and extraneous factors (Tanaka’s preferred geographical location for example) that disallow the Yankees from just flexing their financial might.
The Yankees would conceivably move on to the next tier of free agent starting pitchers consisting of Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Matt Garza if they miss out on Tanaka. These three pitchers would each command at least a 5 year commitment at more than $12M AAV. That would be a risky investment for 3 guys with clear weaknesses. Santana is very homer-prone despite playing his career in 2 pitcher-friendly parks. Jimenez can lose the strike zone at times. Finally, Garza is an injury risk above and beyond natural pitcher attrition. The Yankees would do well to look at cheaper options if they happen to miss out on Tanaka.
I have targeted three left-handed pitchers for three reasons. 1) it provides some balance to the Yankees’ rotation because after C.C. Sabathia it is all right-handers. 2) Lefties fare better in Yankee Stadium as they can neutralize opposing teams’ left-handed hitters who take aim at the short porch in right-field by pitching to the deepest part of park in left-field where the Yankees have two excellent defenders in Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury. 3) Crafty lefties stay around the league longer and these three pitchers are essentially the left-handed versions of Freddy Garcia in terms of their slop-throwing, kitchen sink repertoire. Here they are:
Erik Bedard- The 35 year old is probably best remembered as the guy the Mariners acquired by giving up Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, and others. The move set Seattle back for a number of years. Bedard has never been the same pitcher since that trade following a 5.1 WAR 2007 season. The four-seamer is down slightly from 90.9 career to 89.3 MPH in 2013 and Bedard started to rely heavily on a cutter last year (17.4% of pitches). His cutter, curveball, and changeup comprised almost 50% of his pitches last year as he has began to morph into a junk-ball type. The strikeout rate is still above average (20.8% in 2013 vs 22.4% for career). The walks are his big issue (11.3% for 2013 and 9.6% for his career). He can’t really survive without an insane strikeout rate if he walks the park. He is a fairly neutral pitcher (maybe slight fly-ball guy) in terms of batted ball profile (42.5% ground balls and 37.6% fly balls for his career). This has resulted in almost exactly league average batting average on balls in play, left on base percentage, and home run per fly ball ratio for his career. Basically, he has no special skills that aren’t accounted for in his K%, BB%, and GB%. Knowing those items gives us a pretty good idea of how well Bedard has prevented runs throughout his career. Bedard’s durability is also a concern after he lost almost all of 2010 and hasn’t thrown more than 151 innings since the magical 2007. The Yankees would need to have other options (in-house or one of the other names on this list) to shield from the risk of Bedard getting hurt again. However, the strong strikeout rate, the left-handedness, and the cost make Bedard an attractive alternative.
John Lannan- Lannan, still just 29 years old, has been featured as the 5th or 6th starter on the Nationals for a number of years. He was with the Phillies last year but only pitched 74.1 innings. Lannan doesn’t strike out anyone (12% career K rate) and his walk rate is merely average (8.7%). His calling card is getting ground balls (52.9% career) and keeping the ball in the yard. Like the other two on this list, his fastball averages below 90 MPH but he uses it slightly more often (62.7% career). Most of the fastballs are of the two-seamer/sinker variety that create arm side run and kill the worms by generating ground balls. The home run rate isn’t insanely low, but it’s good enough to remain productive. The Yankees could sign him in hopes of getting one of his low BABIP seasons (2 of his 3 best years his BABIP were .266 and .272). This, combined with Lannan’s ability to keep the ball in the park and to let a good infield defense (assuming plus defenders in Brendan Ryan and Mark Teixeira and at least average defenders in Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson) eat up his ground balls, making him nice candidate for the 5th rotation slot.
Bruce Chen- Chen has bounced around the league and is going into his age-37 season. He had some success the last few years with the Royals and settled in as a league average to slightly below league average pitcher while occupying the fifth spot in their rotation for most of the time. That is extremely valuable for the small amount of money he was paid. His 8.3% career walk rate is almost directly in line with league average, but it has been much better these last three seasons (7.7%, 5.7%,7.2%). He doesn’t really miss many bats, but at least he’s not Bob Tewksbury or worse. He has a career 17.3% K rate, although it is lower the last three seasons (14.8%, 16.9%,15.7%). Chen’s biggest problem is giving up gopher balls. He’s given up 1.50 HR/9 for his career. As a heavy fly ball guy (45.3% for his career) that could really be a problem in Yankee Stadium. Despite being a lefty, maybe the Yankees try to spot his starts on the road in pitcher’s parks and use the long reliever (Warren, Phelps, etc.) when Chen’s slot comes up at home.
The Yankees should certainly go all out to sign Masahiro Tanaka. If they fail to get him then they should bypass the next three perceived best pitchers, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana, due to the great winner’s curse probability present with the signing of each player. Instead, they should look to Erik Bedard, John Lannan, and/or Bruce Chen as stop gaps in the same way that they signed reclamation projects, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, for 2011. This move serves 2 purposes: 1) They can still compete for 2014 if they use the money allotted for Tanaka, Garza, Jimenez, or Santana to improve the bullpen (Grant Balfour, Joel Hanrahan, etc.) and infield (Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, etc.) to make up for the drop off from one of the aforementioned pitchers to Bedard, Lannan, or Chen. 2) The Yankees don’t lock themselves into a long-term deal that potentially convinces them to shy away from targeting one or even two starting pitchers from 2015’s loaded free agent class (currently consists of Homer Bailey, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, Max Scherzer, and James Shields). These starting pitchers may be reclamation projects, but at least they are productive enough to be worth a look if all else fails.