At one point, Patrick Corbin was all but a certainty to be a New York Yankee in 2018.
The signs were there; Corbin, a New York native who grew up a Yankees fan, had his best big league season just in time for free agency, and just in time to step into a starting rotation that could’ve used his presence.
Instead of suiting up in pinstripes, the 29-year-old lefty chose the nation’s capital – and the $140 million didn’t hurt – as his new home, leaving the Yankees still with a hole in their rotation.
Veteran southpaw J.A. Happ seems like the best bet. He pitched extremely well once acquired by the Yankees at the trade deadline, where he had an ERA of 2.69, a 1.05 WHIP and 63 strikeouts to just 16 walks in 11 starts. Despite being 36 years old, Happ found success later in his career that has paid off quite nicely over the last three seasons.
Brian Cashman can put a dent in their American League rival Houston Astros’ starting staff by bringing in either Dallas Keuchel or Charlie Morton. The more popular Keuchel has, for the most part, gotten the best of his New York counterpart in his career (career 2.22 ERA). The soft-contact lefty is mostly durable,pitches to soft contact and has a great feel to his game, where he lacks high velocity but makes up for it with pinpoint accuracy. Morton, like Happ, had a latter-day resurgence, as his improved fastball and strong curve combined for an impressive one-two punch. Morton averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings a year ago, when he also pitched in a career-high 30 games in his age-34 season.
On the trade front, Madison Bumgarner‘s name continues to float in trade rumors ever since the San Francisco Giants reshuffled their front office. There are concerns about Bumgarner’s durability after leading the Giants’ staff over the past decade but he still boasts a career 3.25 FIP and is a bona fide gamer in high-leverage situations. Plus, being in the final year of his contract after an injury-riddled 2018 could make a trade package lighter than some imagine.
There’s also Robbie Ray of the Arizona Diamondbacks. After a breakout campaign in 2017 – where he won 15 games, had a league-leading 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings and made his first All-Star appearance – the 26-year-old continued to strike out the opposition at a high rate in 2018. Ray is arbitration eligible over the next two seasons, and with the Diamondbacks now open for business, there could be a match between both sides.
But there can’t be a discussion about trades for starting pitching without mentioning the Cleveland Indians.
The Yankees have been connected to both Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco since the onset of the offseason – and for good reason. Kluber, the Tribe’s ace, hasn’t had an FIP less than 3.26 over his last three seasons. He’s had over 200 strikeouts in his last five and has also pitched in over 200 innings over that same span. He’s a workhouse that would immediately transform the Yankees’ rotation.
Carrasco was another strong option with to his gradual improvement since becoming a full-time starter for the Indians in 2015. But now the right-hander is no longer available after signing a two-year extension with Cleveland.
Any of the aforementioned names would help the Yankees in their quest for a 28th World Series championship in 2019. But there’s one name that could be the best fit of all.
Despite oftentimes being overlooked due to sharing the load with both Kluber and Carrasco, it could be argued that Bauer is the best of the three. The 27-year-old had a career year in 2018, where he led the league in FIP (2.44) and home runs allowed per nine innings (0.5) while having an opposing batting average of .206, a WHIP of 1.09 and WAR of 6.1.
Bauer’s overall numbers have been trending in the right direction over the last four seasons, too. Since 2015, the righty has seen his FIP gradually decline (4.33, 3.99, 3.88, 2.44) while also seeing the same positive trends in walks per nine innings (4.04, 3.32, 3.06, 2.93), strikeouts (170, 168, 196, 221) and strikeout-to-walk percentage (12.2%, 12,1%, 18.2%, 22.9%). Bauer is also one to mix and match, as he’s said to throw seven variations of pitches throughout the course of a game while experimenting with up to 19.
His postseason success is a big reason why the Yankees should be intrigued. Bauer has pitched in 10 total games (six starts, four relief appearances) and has a 3.81 ERA and 1.50 WHIP to show for it. He specifically found great success against the Yankees in the 2017 ALDS, where he made two starts without allowing an earned run while striking out 11 batters along the way.
Bauer’s quirky attitude and unusual personality is bound to rub some people the wrong way – remember, he injured himself during the 2016 postseason after messing around with his drone – but it could also be the perfect mindset to have in a place like the Bronx. Plus, quirky personality notwithstanding, Bauer is a pitching savant, recognized as someone with a fierce work ethic and a student of the game: character and baseball IQ can make good pitchers great and the most talented hurlers vulnerable.
The package to pry Bauer away from Cleveland, of course, would be steep. The Yankees aren’t building for the future anymore, but for now. Trading pieces that are years away from the major league level isn’t something Cashman should be shy to consider, especially for someone that will be under contract until 2021. Plus, the possibility of taking on Jason Kipnis (.230 AVG, .704 OPS in 2018) and some of his $16.5 million salary for next season could help offset the amount of prospects surrendered.
“I think Bauer has the best stuff out of of the [Indians’ staff],” said one National League executive. “His personality is the wild card but he’s worth the gamble, especially for a team that wants to win now like the Yankees.”
Will the Yankees be in contention next year? Yes.
But their fate will remain the same as the last two years if they don’t address the starting rotation.
Adding Bauer – personality and all – could be exactly the kind of move that puts the Yankees right back on top of both the American League and MLB.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.