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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees not breaking bank to build up rotation

Jameson Taillon #50 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts

Jameson Taillon #50 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a single to Jason Heyward #22 of the Chicago Cubs (not pictured) during the fifth inning at Wrigley Field on September 24, 2018 in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images/Jon Durr

Fishing for reclamation projects and trimming payroll are not winter activities traditionally associated with the Yankees. But here we are, roughly three weeks (maybe) from the start of spring training at Steinbrenner Field, and they finished up a pair of transactions Monday that speak to the franchise’s current mindset.

Trading with the Pirates for pitcher Jameson Taillon, a former second overall draft pick who twice has undergone Tommy John surgery, and enlisting the Red Sox (of all teams) to take on most of Adam Ottavino’s $9 million salary for this season in a cash-saving dump were a few sideways moves in the wake of DJ LeMahieu’s yet-to-be-announced $90 million deal.

Obviously, LeMahieu was the focal point of the offseason, and judging by what we’ve seen from the Yankees, it seems they weren’t kidding when they suggested he would suck up most of their disposable income for 2021.

It feels like a decade ago that Hal Steinbrenner handed Gerrit Cole a contract for $324 million — the surest of sure things in last year’s free-agent class — to give his team the true No. 1 pitcher it desperately needed.

Now? The Yankees had to have LeMahieu back. Beyond that, the rotation was spackled with two high-ceiling acquisitions that come with risk in Taillon and free agent Corey Kluber. On paper, the potential is considerable. But after Cole, the Yankees are looking at a starting staff that will be waiting for Luis Severino’s midseason return from Tommy John surgery, wishing on Jordan Montgomery, wondering about Domingo German and holding their breath on a handful of promising youngsters headed by Deivi Garcia.

Kluber is a two-time Cy Young Award winner but made only seven starts in 2019 (fractured forearm/oblique strain) and threw only 18 pitches for the Rangers last season before being shut down with a shoulder strain. Just because he is coming off two injury-plagued years doesn’t forecast disaster for a third, butbased on that recent history, he has to be considered an $11 million dice roll.

As for Taillon — Cole’s spring training roommate during their Pirates days — he’s got 80-grade resiliency, that’s for sure. Along with the two Tommy John surgeries, he’s survived testicular cancer, taken a line drive off the head and needed a sports hernia repair in a five-year span that ended in 2019. During that time, he had a 3.67 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 8.1 K/9 rate in 82 starts.

By his own admission Monday, Taillon is not that same pitcher. He’s completely rebuilt his delivery to fix the flaws that blew up his elbow twice — not only to save his career but ideally to make him that much better. While Taillon is relieved to be going through a more normal offseason prep this time around, he still hasn’t test driven his significant physical adjustments in a major league game.

"I kind of had a coming-to- grips moment where I said, you know what, my current set of mechanics and what I’m doing isn’t working," Taillon said. "That’s just the cold, hard truth. I need to change something or else my career is going to be over. So I stripped it all the way down.

"With rehab, all you have is time. I had 16 months to strip it down and kind of revamp my mechanics and revamp my career, so I’ve changed a lot in the way I throw. I’m extremely excited to show everyone what I’ve changed and what I can do right now.

"The main goal is to take pressure off my elbow, and ever since surgery, I haven’t had to take an anti-inflammatory or a pain pill. It’s the first time in my career where I’m excited to throw. I’m really fired up to get on the mound and recovering extremely well right now."

Taillon is on the right side of 30 (turned 29 in November) and will make only $2.25 million this season before reaching arbitration in 2022. There is a ton of upside if his arm troubles truly get ironed out.

A self-proclaimed "pitching nerd," Taillon sounds a lot like Cole with his study of the craft, and the Yankees’ all-in approach to analytics, as well as the adrenaline boost provided by joining a contender, should help this next comeback attempt.

But until Taillon actually performs in pinstripes, it’s all an educated guess. Same with Kluber, who required a January showcase to stoke up interest in his services. But for teams looking to find budget-friendly solutions in the margins, as the Yankees are doing this winter, these are the candidates you gamble on.

"Why can’t I be better than before if I’m actually healthy now," Taillon said, "which I feel like I am."

The Yankees are choosing to operate by a business model long on that same optimism, if a bit shorter on cash.

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