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Now that the Yankees have officially retained CC Sabathia, inking him to a new 5-year deal worth $122 million (with a vesting option for a sixth year in 2017), the Yankees will turn their attention to address the rest of their starting rotation. Brian Cashman has officially been retained as well, as he agreed to a new 3-year contract to remain the team’s Senior Vice President and General Manager.
The Yankees’ bitter 2011 ALDS defeat to Detroit was a combined result of flaky starting pitching and inconsistent hitting. Cashman doesn’t view much concern in regards to the lineup, however (nor does he have much flexibility and maneuverability to try to change anything, really). The Tigers helped show the Yankees a firsthand view of what they lacked most in that series – a deep starting rotation – and what a luxury it can prove to be, as it was an obvious deciding factor that favored Detroit propelling them to win a tightly matched best of five series.
Cashman and the rest of the Yankees brain-trust are well aware that the market for starting pitchers is not overly impressive.
Left-hander C.J. Wilson presumably finds his name atop the list of free agent starting pitchers this off-season. Wilson has been very steady for Texas the past two seasons after transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, totaling 31 wins in 67 starts, and pitching 200-plus innings each year. He was the ace of 2011 Rangers staff (though mainly by default after Cliff Lee had left). At 30 years old, he is relatively young, and is now playoff-battle tested having been a part of the past two World Series for the Rangers. He also doesn’t have a ton of mileage on him because he has only been used as a starter for two seasons in his seven year career.
But on the contrary, he undoubtedly benefits from being one of few quality starters available in a thin free agent market. As ESPN’s Buster Olney so eloquently put it, Wilson is “like the only guy invited to a sorority party.” Wilson figures to be looking for a contract deal in the range of what A.J. Burnett and John Lackey received in recent winters (according to several sources including Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman). And although he got some big-time playoff experience, he was not overly impressive to say the least – compiling a 1-5 record and a 4.82 ERA in 10 post-season games (nine starts).
Mark Buehrle is another free agent left-handed option the Yankees could pursue. However, as long as he and the White Sox want one another, it is likely Buehrle will stay in Chicago. But, things can get interesting if the Yankees are willing to dig a little deeper into their wallets for the veteran southpaw. Which is certainly a possibility because Buehrle would be an ideal fit as a second lefty to solidify the rotation considerably, filling that ominous hole the rotation that was vacated by Andy Pettitte when he opted to retire prior to 2011. Buerhle, 32, has also flirted with the idea of an early retirement, and although coming off an effective season, he’s had a couple up-and-down seasons of late. He’s a soft-tossing/finesse/crafty lefty type that might not pan out pitching the majority of his starts in the smaller, more-hitter friendly AL East ballparks – and against their more lethal lineups.
Roy Oswalt is also on the market after his $16 million mutual option with the Phillies was not exercised. Coming off an injury-plagued season, the veteran-righty could be a high-reward gamble for a team willing to fork over a pretty significant deal to attain him. Entering 2011, Oswalt was still regarded as one of the game’s better pitchers, but now finds himself a free agent with a rather questionable future due to two lengthy DL-stints (lower back pain) in 2011 that lead to a recent decline in performance.
Prior to being dealt to Philly from Houston in 2010, Oswalt was a stickler about not wanting to pitch in a big-market city, but he did waive his no-trade clause to accept the trade. Maybe his experience pitching in a big market as a Phillie will help the Yankees’ odds at finding a mutual interest – if the Yankees decide to pursue him.
Freddy Garcia and (for the most part) Bartolo Colon were pleasant surprises filling in the Yankees 2011 rotation. Both, now free agents, could once again be cheap low-investment options for the Yanks in 2012. Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Paul Maholm and Jeff Francis could find their way onto the Yankees radar as other available free agent options. Obviously none of these names are anything to go gaga over. But, they could turn out to be steals wherever they land. One name that might turn out to be the Yankees’ most-talked about option, is 25-year-old Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish.
Make no mistake about it, Darvish is not Kei Igawa. Heck, he’s not even Hideki Irabu. And some will probably even go out on a limb and say he also isn’t Hideo Nomo or Daisuke Matsuzaka either. He is better. The Yankees have been scouting the Japanese star for a few years now (as well as other Japanese players for that matter). The general consensus, as Cashman himself has been on record of saying, is that the Yankees international scouting personnel have a better understanding of how to evaluate talent in Japan – and predict how the talent can translate to the big leagues. Not only has Darvish produced gaudy-video game-esque stats all throughout his professional career (that began at 18 years of age), but his totals are light-years ahead of all other Japanese pitching sensations, particularly those aforementioned, that were also stars in Japan that left to go play in the majors.
Okay, yes, there has not been a good percentage of those guys being overly effective transitioning from Japan, but if you put it into perspective, Darvish could be an exception to the rule. Not for nothing, he was one of the ace pitchers for Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, in which he baffled team USA en route to Japan’s Gold Medal win. Out of all the major leaguers to have previously played in Japan, their stat totals decline to a certain extent pitching in the majors (some, more so than others, of course). But on an average, it’s a similarity not all too different from when a career National League starter transitions to the American League only to inevitably succumb to a raise in ERA and an overall drop in productivity (Exhibit A: Javier Vazquez). But not all ‘NL pitchers’ fail as ‘AL pitchers’ – take David Cone for instance (or Josh Beckett in more recent years). The point here is that the right guy can change a trend, and based off of the trend of his fellow countrymen, Darvish and his current 2011 ERA of 1.78 in Japan could very well translate to being a respectable (say 3.50-or so for argument’s sake) ERA in the majors. If you disagree with that logic, you’re probably either a math nerd or in denial – and that is fair, because the truth is no one really knows how stats in Japan will translate. Some say Japan should be viewed more as a AA or AAA minor league affiliate. If that’s the case, Darvish would be as highly tauted as Stephen Strasburg, David Price and Matt Moore have been. He also has minimal history of injury and has pitched 200-plus innings three times in his stellar six-year career for Japan’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. He is said to have an arsenal of pitches – two fastballs, a hard breaking “slurve” type slider, a big-breaking curveball, a splitter and a changeup. He can get his four-seam fastball to top out at 97 mph, but throws it more regularly in the low to mid-90’s range. He often mixes in his two-seam fastball (also at a low to mid-90’s speed), a “shuuto” type of fastball, that cuts down and in on right-hand hitters and down and away on lefties.
But, amidst the intrigue, Darvish has two big glaring cons going against his favor if he is even willing to leave Japan to go play Major League Baseball in 2012.
1) He will require a posting fee (as Daisuke Matsuzaka did in the 2006-07 off-season) because he is currently under contract with the Ham Fighters. It is believed Darvish will generate around the same amount of money Matsuzaka did, on both, the posting fee as well as the finalized player-contract. Matsuzaka got $52 Million for 6 years, after the Red Sox won the rights to be the sole MLB team to negotiate with him, with a winning posting fee of $51,111,111 that was granted to Matsuzaka’s then current team – the Seibu Lions.
2) The risk of all the uncertainty involved in Darvish. Transitioning from one country to another in the aspect of the game is hard enough, but it doesn’t compare to how difficult of a challenge it is to get familiar with living in a new country and adjust to an entirely different lifestyle. Baseball players are human after-all, and if Darvish does come to the U.S. to pitch and struggles with adapting to his surroundings off the field – it very likely can have a negative impact on his performance on the field. The amount of money is a risk in itself to dish out to an unproven and untested pitcher that simply could become a pitching version of Ichiro – or the next Igawa – or somewhere in between.
Whatever way the Yankees end up playing it, they will be very prepared to make what they feel will be the best decisions going forward with a rotation of: Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, who are seamlessly (baring a trade or unexpected bullpen demotion) locked in at four of the five starting spots. Maybe Cashman will give a long spring training look to one of the top prospects in the Yankees’ minor leagues system – Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances – giving them an opportunity to win a rotation spot, or be an early to mid-season call-up. But even if that scenario pans out, the odds of one of those young guys being able to pitch deep into the season and post-season are going to be slim because of inning restrictions and all that ‘Joba rules’ nonsense that makes most people like me want to puke.
But with the direction the Yankees are going, with core regulars getting older and in decline, they can’t afford to find themselves in a 2012 playoff matchup having the same starting four they had in 2011. That is evident. And it is also likely the reason why the Yankees will make a move this off-season to not only ensure a playoff spot, but ensure better odds at getting past tricky first-round matchups. And if free agency isn’t the answer, Cashman and the Yankees will test the waters of the trade market. Which could very well mean Jesus Montero’s Yankee career might be a short one, while Banuelos and Betances amongst others, may not even have a Yankee career.
In other most-recent Yankees news, the team has retained both Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, both expected transactions, picking up their respective 2012 contract options.