Yankees: Did the club make a mistake by not pursuing Patrick Corbin?

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 17: Patrick Corbin #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a first inning pitch against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field on September 17, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 17: Patrick Corbin #46 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a first inning pitch against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field on September 17, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

We are now two-thirds through the 2019 MLB season, putting us in a good position to evaluate whether the Yankees made a mistake not pursuing Patrick Corbin more aggressively during the offseason. Regrets or no regrets?

Several MLB clubs, including the Yankees, were seeking to improve their starting pitching during the offseason. Most of these teams were in a financial position to do so given how much an elite starter or two might cost.

For example, the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies admitted publicly he was prepared to spend “stupid” money to make the Phills great again. In addition to being interested in signing Patrick Corbin, they also were willing to chase down and sign the two premier free agents on the market, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. In the end, of course, they signed Harper.

While it was surprising and unusual to hear the Phillies express their willingness to spend big on free agent players, the Yanks do this all the time. Many times the money was well spent (C.C. Sabathia, for example), but sometimes the money was wasted (Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance). Regardless of which player was in the mix, the same goal was always being pursued, winning the World Series.

Compared to many past years, the Yankees were in a comfortable financial position to improve the team dramatically during the 2018 offseason. The team was under the luxury tax threshold heading into 2019, a rare occurrence, and the club’s revenue and overall wealth were sky high due to shrewd marketing and successful business decisions.

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In addition, the Washington Nationals were flush with cash as a result of the expiring contracts of Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, and Matt Wieters. Their departures freed up almost $62 million from Nats’ payroll. Add the team’s frustration fueled by last season’s collapse, and the Nationals were very much in the hunt for elite free agents to improve their ball club as well.

Surprisingly, in early December the Nationals signed the then 29-year-old Corbin to a six-year contract worth $140 million with a signing bonus of $2.5 million. Specifically, he receives $12.5 million this season, $19 million in 2020, $24 million in 2021, $23 million in 2022, $24 million in 2023, and $35 million in 2024 ($10 million deferred without interest).

The deal is substantially back loaded, something the Nationals strongly prefer to do because it lightens the overall economic burden on the club. One can assume that Corbin would have been willing to work out a similar deal with the already wealthy Yankees.

However, according to reports, GM Brian Cashman never submitted an official offer to Corbin! The Yankees told Corbin that they would be comfortable with four or five years for $17 to $20 million per year. In essence, $100 million was floated. However, Corbin told them that he was looking for Yu Darvish money. Apparently, that ended the discussion and negotiation.

Many analysts were surprised by this outcome, particularly since Corbin himself expressed a preference to join the Yanks having grown up in the New York area as a Yankees fan. The Yanks are rarely outbid by another club, especially for a marquee starting pitcher like Corbin.

Did the Yankees make a mistake?

Several baseball teams were interested in obtaining Corbin for good reason. Playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he pitched 155 innings in 2016, 189 in 2017, and 200 in 2018. His ERA during those years was 5.15, 4.03, and 3.15, respectively, indicating a considerable improvement in his performance on the mound each year.

Corbin has even fielded well, committing only one error during those three seasons. Relying on his excellent slider, in 2018 his strikeouts per 9 innings pitched was 11.1 — he went 11-7, his WAR was an impressive 4.6, and he finished fifth overall in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

Thus far in 2019 Corbin has pitched 141 innings in 23 games. He has a 9-5 record and a 3.43 ERA. He has struck out an average of 10.4 batters per 9 innings and has a 3.6 WAR. These substantial numbers show that Corbin is pitching well during the prime of his career. Unless he injures himself, Corbin is likely to perform at this high level for years to come.

Clearly, Cashman made a colossal mistake by not matching the offer made by the Nationals (or even exceeding their offer, if required). The Yanks could have afforded to sign him and would have still made a very large profit in 2019. The club was being much too risk-averse in this instance (perhaps due to Corbin’s previous Tommy John surgery), which might come back to haunt the team at the end of this year and beyond.

The consequences

As we know, the starting pitching for the Yanks has been very inconsistent throughout the 2019 season, and it has been their offense and bullpen that have been carrying the Bombers thus far.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have a terrific group of starting hurlers. And, unlike the Yanks, who were unable to improve their starting pitching via trades, the Houston Astros succeeded in adding Zack Greinke to their already solid starting rotation during this year’s trading period.

However, the Yanks have great future potential in the area of starting pitching. This year’s surprise, Domingo German, the outstanding Luis Severino (who will eventually come off the IL), and the terrific young guns in the minor leagues bode well for the future of Yankee pitching.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the club will win this year’s American League pennant and World Series by relying on the present band of erratic pitching brothers.

The problem is that outstanding pitching usually trumps great hitting over time, especially at the most competitive levels of the playoffs and World Series. Without this significant ingredient, it is highly likely that the Bombers will not go deep into the postseason, no matter how well their offense performs. In a seven-game series, one cannot depend on offense alone to carry the day.

There is still time for the present group of starting pitchers to achieve their full potential and perform on a consistent basis. That is good news. The bad news is that they will likely have to face clubs like the Astros and Dodgers whose offenses are almost equal to the Yanks but have far superior starting hurlers.