Even if the Yankees back off the pursuit of a $189M payroll, there are players on the open market that might be had at a reasonable price. Today, I’m going to examine back-end starters who might be available at a bargain price. As of now, only CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova are locks for the rotation, with other internal options like David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, and Brett Marshall in the mix. Obviously, it would be ideal if only one of that group makes the rotation. For that to happen, the Yankees will need to add two starters via free agency or trade. Japanese hurlers Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka could be that pair, but the Yankees are certainly perusing what else is on the shelf.
For this look at some potentially affordable rotation options, I used Fangraphs’ free agent crowdsourcing and Steamer 2014 projections. Last year, the crowd was able to predict contract length and annual salary within 10% of the actual results. In addition to being the lone 2014 projection system out at the moment, Steamer has been the most accurate of its counterparts in ERA forecasts. Using these two resources gave me a decent idea of who to target in relation to their affordability.
Paul Maholm, Jason Hammel, Bartolo Colon, and Scott Feldman appear to be feasible targets on a one or two year contract. None of these guys are spectacular, but any of them should be able to get the job done as a fifth-starter.
Obviously, not all of these guys come with the same amount of risk. In my unscientific opinion, I would rank the group from least to most risky as follows: Feldman, Maholm, Hammel, and Colon. Weight and age make a reunion with Colon unlikely, despite him being the best of the bunch the past couple of seasons. Hammel’s propensity to allow the longball (1.42 HR/9 in 2013) brings bad memories of Phil Hughes, despite Steamer optimistically projecting a 0.87 HR/9 rate. Nonetheless, I would be pleased with either of Colon or Hammel as a fifth starter, but would prefer Maholm or Feldman.
Maholm posted his highest ERA since 2010 last year (4.41), after his BABIP jumped from the prior two seasons in which he posted a sub-4 ERA. He keeps the ball in the park well, and as a lefty, profiles well for Yankee Stadium. Additionally, with a career 52.1% ground-ball rate, he could benefit from having Brendan Ryan behind him at shortstop (Jeter would DH with Maholm pitching). Amazingly, that’s a defensive downgrade at the position from Andrelton Simmons, but Ryan is also one of the best in the business. One notable concern was a scare with Maholm’s elbow in September, causing him to miss a few starts, but he wound up returning at the end of the month to make two more appearances after an MRI cleared him of any structural damage.
Like Maholm, Feldman gets a lot of ground balls (47.1% career), and is best suited behind a good infield. With Ryan behind him, and hopefully Robinson Cano back in the fold, the middle of the infield’s defense would be rock solid. Steamer may be least optimistic about right-handed Feldman, but I would argue him to be the safest bet of the bunch I’ve isolated. He’s posted solid peripherals and defense independent pitching numbers the past two seasons, and has a little bit of experience in the AL East after being dealt to the Orioles this past summer.
Should the Yankees splurge on Kuroda and Tanaka, it might not make sense to bring in any of the four mentioned above. Having depth wouldn’t hurt, but it might be worth taking a chance on Phelps or another internal option be the fifth starter to save the $7 to $9 million that would have to be spent annually. For what it’s worth, Steamer thinks Phelps can post 2 WAR in around 180 innings while posting a 4.38 ERA/4.12 FIP. That seems somewhat optimistic (and on par with the four pitchers I shortlisted), but it would certainly cut it as a fifth starter. Nonetheless, bringing in depth from free agency wouldn’t hurt, but that depends on how much money ownership is willing to spend.
If something goes haywire with the posting system agreement, the Yankees’ lose the bidding on Tanaka, or Kuroda winds up declining to return, it’s in the Yankees best interest to explore some of the options illustrated above. None should be terribly expensive in terms of years and salary, and all have a decent shot at providing good value in the back end.
(This was originally written for Pinstripe Alley)