Trade Talk: The Yankees and starting pitching

If the Yankees are going to make a run to the World Series, the starting rotation needs to be addressed. That much we do know. Thus far into the 2020 season, the pitching staff has been a modern day Clint Eastwood movie.

The good: Gerrit Cole has been Gerrit Cole (BAY BAY). Jordan Montgomery has continued his ascent to a solid, reliable rotation arm who will compete every fifth day. Masahiro Tanaka has been good, not great. But he performs his best when the lights are at its brightest, making him as reliable as they come.

The bad: James Paxton has been woefully inadequate, between continual injury issues and a velocity drop of just about three miles per hour from a year ago, resulting in an opposing slash of .284/.344/.531 through five starts. J.A. Happ and his 8.66 FIP hasn’t been any better.

The ugly: Paxton is now sidelined with elbow discomfort. There’s hope he’ll return before the regular season concludes but it’s typically a mystery when coming back from issues with your pitching arm. Luis Severino won’t be around until next summer. Some scouts believe Deivi Garcia, one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, is better suited in the bullpen. Clarke Schmidt, another top pitching prospect, doesn’t seem set for the Bronx just yet, despite his success during Summer Camp. For that, we can thank service time manipulation more than anything.

With the trade deadline less than a week away, there’s a clear path for Brian Cashman to upgrade the position. But just like everything else in 2020, even something like this comes with concerns and caveats.

The expanded playoff picture means most teams view themselves as contenders now more than ever. Budgets for 2021 are still up in the air due to the ongoing pandemic, meaning front offices may be wary of taking on salary. Although teams can use prospects that aren’t within their player pool under the “player to be named later” designation, a lack of updated scouting reports could limit that as well.

The names floating around both on the Twittersphere and among baseball circles could very well upgrade the Yankees rotation.

The first that come to mind Cleveland’s dopey-duo of Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger. Both hurlers were a part of the Indians’ starting rotation this year, and there was no doubt they represented the future of the staff as well. They then decided to defy league protocols and take part in a trip to Chicago, which not only sent them to the team’s alternate site, but also put their futures with the organization in serious doubt.

Clevinger’s price tag was described as “not cheap”, according to a source with knowledge of the situation – and that’s factoring in the 29-year-old’s eccentricities. Additionally, he appears to be worse off than Plesac in the Indians’ clubhouse due to being “less truthful” about the Windy City expedition, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan. One would assume Plesac would cost even more, due to additional control and success in a short span.

Then there are the “other guys,” who come from all different walks of baseball life. “Both [Trevor] Bauer and [Johnny] Cueto have a better chance to be moved,” the source said while speaking about Clevinger. “And it’s a near-guarantee Boston will move on from [Nathan] Eovaldi.”

Jon Morosi mentioned the Seattle Mariners’ Taijuan Walker as another trade target [Editor’s note: Walker was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, per Ken Rosenthal]. Andy Martino noted the Yankees have reached out to the Giants about Kevin Gausman.

Let’s start from the top.

Bauer is having a Cy Young-like campaign for the underwhelming Reds, both to the average viewer (opposing batters are hitting just .134 against him through five starts while averaging over 13 strikeouts per nine innings and an ERA of 1.65) and to the most devout advanced stats gurus (he ranks in the 90th percentile or higher in xwOBA, xERA, xBA, xSLG, barrel percentage, strikeout percentage and fastball spin). Free agency is looming for Bauer, and the Reds would be wise to see if they can get something for him before he has the opportunity to walk for nothing in the offseason.

Cueto isn’t going to wow anyone, especially when factoring in his age and low strikeout totals. But the veteran has a solid five pitch mix and also would fall only behind Tanaka and Montgomery in terms of ground ball percentage, which is always a positive within the comfy confides of Yankee Stadium. Plus, his timing manipulation has been a joy to watch – I can already envision a Twitter page dedicated to that alone on Yankees Twitter. $21 million owed in 2021, however, makes a move a moot point.

Then there’s Eovaldi, who has familiarity in the Bronx, always a plus (hello, Sonny Gray!). Another positive is Eovaldi’s flexibility, as he’s found success pitching out of the bullpen in recent seasons, too. On the other hand, Eovaldi has continued his career-long trend of allowing hits at a high clip (over 10 hits per nine innings in 2020); plus, trades between the Yankees and Red Sox are as rare as they come, with the last in 2014.

Gausman may be pitching in San Francisco nowadays but did spend five and a half seasons in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles, so the transition in theory wouldn’t be as daunting. His surface numbers this season are pedestrian at best (4.65 ERA, 1.29 WHIP); but through 31 innings pitched, Gausman also has an FIP of 3.12, over 12 strikeouts per nine innings and a whiff percentage, strikeout percentage and fastball velocity ranking in the 80th percentile or higher, per Statcast.

What will it take? That’s the question on everyone’s minds.

That “not cheap” package for Clevinger? The same source put it at “two young pitchers, a middle infielder and an outfielder.” Some may say that’s a steep price for someone nearing 30, but you’d also be getting a pitcher who sported a 2.49 FIP and 12.1 K/9 through 21 starts a year ago. He’s also arbitration eligible over the next two seasons, with minimal wear and tear on his arm.

An obvious inclusion would have to be Clint Frazier, a 2013 Cleveland first round pick. A fan favorite in New York, Frazier could be a boon to Cleveland’s struggling outfield, with his .333/.400/.667 triple slash in 30 plate appearances being an immediate upgrade. Would it hurt the Yankees to lose Frazier? Yes in the short term, but not so much in the long term.

Thairo Estrada offers tremendous defensive versatility and has hit at every single minor league level. He’s continued to do so during short stints in New York; Estrada, 24, is batting .253 with a .732 OPS across 79 big-league at-bats while playing second base, third base, shortstop, right field and left field.

Pitching is where things get interesting. Fans don’t seem to be willing to part with Schmidt, who wowed during Summer Camp, is a former first round pick and has all the makings of being on the big league staff sooner than later. While the belief is he can becoming a strong number three starter with a potential to be even higher, Clevinger already is. At what point do you trade the what ifs for the what is?

Bauer theoretically would come cheaper as a rental, but only by a hair.

Frazier would be an automatic upgrade out in left field in Great American Ball Park. Miguel Andujar wouldn’t help much on the defensive end, and the Reds have already committed to Eugenio Suarez. But when the Dominican native gets everyday at-bats, he hits with the best of them. Andujar was the most consistent hitter on a 100-win Yankees team back in 2018 as a rookie, when he slashed .297/.328/.527 with 27 home runs, 42 doubles and 92 RBI. The fit may not be perfect, but extracting value should be a top priority.

While there are differing opinions about Garcia out there, it remains hard to deny the numbers. His walk rate is high, but so is his ability to get swings and misses, as evidenced by his 165 strikeouts across 111.1 innings between A+, AA and AAA last season. Both Garcia’s fastball and curveball have plus potential, and he’s added a changeup and slider to his arsenal. Two hurlers like Nick Nelson and Albert Abreu have flashed prowess throughout their stints with the Yankees and could be young, impact arms in the Reds’ needy bullpen.

But like Cueto, there are questions surrounding Bauer and his fit on the Yankees – and it has nothing to do with things on the field.

Bauer and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole have friction stemming from their college days. One would assume adults could put things aside for the greater good (like, say, a World Series championship), but it’s unknown how receptive Cole would be to teaming with Bauer once again. And vice versa.

After evaluating potential trade packages for pitchers who will undoubtedly make a difference, I harken back to Cashman and his trade deadline blueprint: spend, but don’t overspend.

The Yankees GM, time and time again, has gone with complementary arms instead of difference makers, opting largely for what he has instead of what he can get. Just look at past deadlines; he traded for Gray and Jaime Garcia instead of Justin Verlander back in 2017 for financial reasons. Names like Cory Lidle, Al Leiter, Chris Capuano and Shawn Chacon, among others, fit a similar mold.

Because of this, I think the tea leaves show someone like Gausman in the Yankees’ future.

[Editor’s note, part two: Originally, this section of the article broke down Cashman and Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto’s relationship, and how that was a big reason why Walker heading to New York was realistic. Walker is now across the border, making it null and void.]

You have an organization in the Yankees that targets pitchers who throw hard and generate strikeouts. You have a pitcher that won’t need much of a trade package to get; a fringe 40-man player might get the job done. The current Giant fits that mold.

Would acquiring Gausman complete the roster, giving the Yankees their royal flush? Probably not.

But sometimes a simple high card gets the job done all the same.