With the New York Yankees seemingly in the market for some starting pitching help this winter, one cold, hard fact is obvious when looking at the potential free agents available: This is a thin market. There is a good reason for that. Teams have been much more diligent in identifying there talented young pitchers and locking them into long-term deals that cover their arbitration-eligible years. Thus, instead of becoming free agents when they are 27, pitchers are being locked into deals until they are in their 30s. That is why there is not a Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander or Jared Weaver out on the open market. But let’s take a deeper look into what is available and rate the pitchers who should be at the top of the Yankees’ Christmas shopping list.
As I posted earlier, the top target on the Yankees’ list is currently C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers.
Wilson is a 31-year-old left-hander who was 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA in 2011. On the positive side, Wilson is a lefty and the Yankees did miss have a second lefty in their rotation when Andy Pettitte chose to retire after the 2010 season. The record and ERA he posted also show that Wilson was an effective pitcher for the American League champions.
Wilson also has pitched only two seasons as a starter. He has a combined record of 31-15. Since he was a relief pitcher for the Rangers for his five previous major-league seasons, Wilson does not have the normal wear and tear on his arm a normal 31-year-old would have. He also was the ace of the Rangers’ staff in 2011.
But there are some negatives.
The most glaring is that Wilson is 1-5 in his nine postseason starts with an ERA of 4.82. He was 0-3 with a 5.79 ERA this past postseason. So maybe Wilson is not quite ready for prime time as his regular season record might indicate. The Yankees would prefer to have a proven postseason winner like a Pettitte rather than a guy who will not deliver when it counts.
Wilson may not be that guy.
However, Wilson remains the top target of a lot of teams such as the Washington Nationals, the Los Angeles Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not to mention the Rangers would love to keep Wilson in the fold themselves.
But the biggest factor in Wilson’s favor is that his price will not even come close to that paid to Cliff Lee by the Philadelphia Phillies last winter. Lee received a five-year, $120 million contract. Wilson will not receive offers anything close to that because he is not in Lee’s neighborhood as a pitcher.
Wilson likely will get offers of around four years and $80 million. The Yankees can certainly afford that since they did not have to really break the bank to retain ace lefty CC Sabathia. Sabathia did not opt out of his contract, which would have driven his price up. Instead he signed a modest extension, leaving some dollars for general manager Brian Cashman to offer Wilson a nice deal.
It is pretty obvious with Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova lined up behind Sabathia in the Yankees’ rotation, the Yankees will look to add at least one free agent to the mix. There could be a possibility of two.
Wilson stands above the rest of the free-agent class and Cashman will likely stay in the bidding with Wilson’s agent, Bob Garber.
Yu Dravish comes with a gigantic question mark because he is not officially a free agent yet.
Darvish, 25, is the best pitcher in Japan and likely would become the best starting pitcher ever to pitch in the major leagues from Japan. He currently is pitching in the playoffs in Japan with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Nippon is in a bad situation with the right-hander.
They do not have the financial ability to keep him and they would benefit greatly by “posting” him. That would allow the team to receive bids just for the right to speak to his agent. That money would allow the Ham Fighters to rebuild their team with a huge infusion of cash.
Daisuke Matsuzaka drew a huge posting fee of $50 million from the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox then signed Matsuzaka for $53 million for a total investment of $103 million (of which only the salary of $53 million counted against the salary cap for the Red Sox).
Darvish is somewhat different than “Dice-K.”
Darvish is 6-foot-5, 190 pounds. He also is of part Middle Eastern descent. But what really sets Darvish apart is his ability to throw fastballs in the upper 90s, in addition to an excellent array of breaking pitches. But Darvish does not nibble with pitches out of the strike zone like Matsuzaka. He attacks hitters.
In his six seasons in Japan, he is 88-33 with five seasons of an ERA under 2.00. He also has pitched against the world’s best hitters as the MVP of the last World Baseball Classic as he led Japan to victory.
The negatives are that Japanese pitchers have not fared well as starters in the States. The most successful was Hideo Nomo, who was 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA in 11 major-league seasons. There also have been the Hideki Irabus and Kei Igawas the Yankees have signed and become dismal failures.
Japanese pitchers also have their own different way of preparing for their starts and they do not often like changing their routine once they reach the States.
The other problem is that if the Yankees do decide they really want Darvish, they better be prepared for a posting fee that could approach $100 million and a contract of five years for upwards of $90 million. That is going to push the Yankees a lot further over the salary cap and managing partners Hank and Hal Steinbrenner have instructed Cashman to either hold it steady or reduce it where he can.
By signing Darvish the Yankees would have to have the Steinbrenners’ blessing to break the bank as they did in signing Mark Teixeira in 2009. This seems unlikely but certainly within the realm of possibilities.
But it is almost sure the Yankees will not sign both Wilson and Darvish. It will be one or the other.
Oswalt is 34 and is coming off a 9-10 mark with a 3.69 ERA with the Phillies last season. He was injured for a month with some recurring back issues.
When he was healthy, he actually pitched quite well. He finished the season well by throwing quality starts in four of his last seven starts. The veteran right-hander is what the Yankees used to love: a reliable older veteran pitcher who has pitched in big playoff games and someone who definitely knows how to pitch.
The Yankees succeeded in signing veteran free agents like Jimmy Key, David Cone and Mike Mussina. However, at the other end of the spectrum they also have signed or traded for mistakes like Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Burnett. So to be a little wary of Oswalt and his balky back might be another cautionary tale.
Insiders seem to believe that the Yankees interest in Oswalt is minimal at best, which would be fine by me. There may be too much mileage on that right arm to risk signing Oswalt at this stage of his career. There are much younger and cheaper options below him.
At age 28, Jackson has already modeled six different uniforms and five in the last four seasons. The right-hander seems to burn bright with promise and then fizzle out like a dud roman candle.
Last season, Jackson was a combined 12-9 with a 3.79 ERA between the Chacago White Sox and the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, Jackson was 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA for the Cards in 12 starts down the stretch.
But he was 1-1 with a 5.80 ERA in his four postseason starts.
Jackson is one of those high-risk, high-reward free agents. He has the stuff and the stamina to dominate any team in baseball for nine innings. But he also can unravel like a cheap suit against the weakest hitting team in the league. Hence, his career ERA of 4.46 and a WHIP of 1.48.
The hope of signing Jackson is that he is young enough to turn his career around and become the star pitcher he was predicted in his younger days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But you have to raise a red flag when a pitching coach like the esteemed Dave Duncan is willing to allow you to leave the Cardinals as a free agent.
Jackson would be much cheaper to sign than all the other pitchers listed above. But he also may be just a younger version of Burnett – some good days and a lot of bad ones. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is not a young man. Why give him two potential heart attacks with Burnett and Jackson?
I do not see much interest in Jackson from the Yankees. Let him ruin another team’s staff.
He is 32 but he also is left-handed. So there is a lot to like in Buerhle.
Last season, Buerhle was 13-9 with a 3.59 ERA for the White Sox, the only organization he has ever known. In his 11 full seasons he is 161-119 with a 3.83 ERA.
Buerhle has never been a Josh Beckett, Roger Clemens or Stephen Strasburg pitcher who lights up radar guns. Buerhle just pitches and gets outs. He throws 200 innings every season and he not missed much time with injuries. He has no season in which he made less than 30 starts.
Reliability and effectiveness are two of Buerhle’s best descriptions. He also has been the unquestioned ace of this staff for all of those seasons and he has postseason experience. He was 2-0 with a 3.87 ERA in the championship season of 2005 for the White Sox.
This would be a perfect kind of target for the Yankees if they fail to sign or either Wilson or Darvish. He also could be a likely target if the Yankees intend to trade Burnett this winter, which has been circulating as a rumor ever since Cashman made the comment about “if Burnett is back with us next season.”
Buerhle is the antithesis of Burnett, Burnett has “stuff” but Buerhle gets by on guile. Buerhle is as steady as plane on autopilot. Burnett is be as unpredictable as Lindsay Lohan on Rodeo Drive.
It would stand to reason the Yankees might have an interest in another left-hander. If Wilson goes elsewhere, look for Buerhle to get an offer from the Yankees. Lefties fare much better in Yankee Stadium because teams stack righties and we all know the short porch is in right. So Mr. Buerhle certainly bears watching this winter.
He may just find a friendly home in the Bronx in 2012.
On the surface, Kuroda may appear to be better than Buerhle. After all, he was 13-16 but had a sparkling 3.07 ERA for the Dodgers in 2011.
However, Kuroda will be 37 when the 2012 season starts and he has pitched a lot of innings in Japan before he came to the Dodgers in 2008. He is 41-46 with a 3.45 ERA with the Dodgers.
The biggest drawback with Kuroda, besides his age, is the fact he has not pitched in the American League. So his value, much like Oswalt’s, may be inflated a bit by pitching in a less tougher league where pitchers bat.
His biggest positive for the Yankees is he is left-handed and the Yankees could use another lefty. He also is a low WHIP pitcher, His career WHIP is 1.19, which is excellent in any league.
But it is hard to imagine that the Yankees, who have been burned by National League pitchers like Brown and Vazquez before would not be salivating to add a 37-year-old Japanese pitcher who has not pitched in the American League.
The Yankees would have to be real desperate to show much interest in Kuroda.
The biggest trade target the Yankees would seek would be Hernandez of the Mariners.
Hernandez is only 25 and he is pitching for one of the weakest offensive teams in the A.L. He was 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA in 2011 and that was considered an off-year for the King.
He won the Cy Young Award in 2010 and is considered one of the best pitchers in baseball. So why wouldn’t the Yankees target him?
Well, Cashman has already weighed in on that subject by saying that he would much rather sign a pitcher as a free agent than trade away top-flight young players like Jesus Montero, Eduardo Nunez, Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, Delin Betances and Manny Banuelos.
The nice thing about signing a Wilson, Darvish or Buerhle is that Cashman still gets to keep the building blocks to the future of the club. Trading for Hernandez or any other pitcher like him would gut the farm system just as the Boston Red Sox have done by trading for Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez the past two seasons.
Cashman would love to have King Felix in the fold. But not at the price the Mariners would want in return.
So do not bet the ranch Hernandez will be in pinstripes in 2012. It is just not likely to happen.
The bottom line is the Yankees are definitely targeting Wilson and Darvish. But they likely will sign only one of those two because they can’t afford both. Wilson tops the list because he is left-handed and he does not have the mileage most 31-year-old pitchers have on them.
But if Wilson eludes them or gets too pricey, Darvish will become priority No. 1 because he is not your typical Japanese import starting pitcher. Darvish has plus stuff and he has a competitive streak that makes him attack hitters without fear. The problem is it is hard to guarantee Cashman will even get a chance to negotiate with Arn Tellem, Darvish’s American agent.
The reason is the posting fee is a crapshoot. The Red Sox outbid other teams by more than $20 million in the Matsuzaka sweepstakes. Darvish is drawing interest from a lot of teams with bankrolls who can post $100 million. The Yankees just have to guess how high that fee might be and try to beat it if they want Darvish that badly.
Whatver money is left could possibly go to another pitcher if the Yankees are sure they want to ship Burnett out of town and they are willing to pay most, if not all, of his contract. If they do make that decision, Buerhle looks to be the most attractive target to replace Burnett.
A startung staff of Sabathia, either Darvish or Wilson, Buerhle, Hughes and Nova somehow does not seem so bad, does it?