Despite the Yankees’ impressive and, dare we say, unexpected six-week dash to the AL East penthouse, the obvious need for this first-place team comes as no surprise. And that’s a front-of-the-rotation pitcher, a glaring void made even more worrisome by the early struggles of Masahiro Tanaka, who produced his second straight horrendous outing Saturday. The Yankees’ starters have a combined 4.67 ERA, which ranked 14th in the American League. The club leader? Michael Pineda, at 3.42.
Fortifying this weakness, however, does not seem as simple for the Yankees as it has been in seasons past, when they either would absorb boatloads of cash for another team’s salary dump or package a handful of prospects. Maybe both.
But this past week, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner reiterated two of his favorite talking points: holding on to the Yankees’ most valuable young players and getting below the $197-million luxury tax threshold for the 2018 season.
While that doesn’t rule out trading for rotation help, it could affect how Steinbrenner does business before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. This was his take about going after a top pitcher as a difference-maker if it means moving a prospect to do so:
“I don’t know if I’d be more open to it,” Steinbrenner said. “But I will absolutely divert all my attention to any one deal that’s brought across my table. That’s the way I’ve always been. I’ll do the research, I’ll read scouting reports, I’ll talk to [Brian Cashman] and all of his people, and I’ll consider any option.”
If we take Steinbrenner’s word on that, here are a few pitching upgrades that might come across his desk in the coming weeks. And one potential Yankees chip: Triple-A outfielder Clint Frazier is surging, batting .284 (27-for-95) since April 21 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 24 games. Could make for some difficult choices. Here’s the list:
1. JOSE QUINTANA, WHITE SOX
Quintana has been linked to the Yankees for years now, and in a way, he should be destined to return to New York. The Mets signed him as an amateur free agent in 2006. After his release, he was scooped up by the Yankees, who also let him leave after he spent two years in their system. Now that the White Sox are playing down to expectations, the lefthander is priced to move, with roughly $18 million left on his contract through 2018 — and two more option years beyond that. He’s still only 28, and despite a bumpy start (2-5, 4.38), Quintana has a career-best 8.4 K/9 ratio and a lifetime 3.45 ERA.
2. YU DARVISH, RANGERS
Texas appeared destined to join the ranks of July sellers before reeling off 10 straight wins this month. But with the Astros threatening to run away with the AL West title, much of what the Rangers decide to do will be linked with the wild card, and Darvish is a very attractive chip to play if they choose to cash out in his walk year. Darvish, who will turn 31 in August, is earning only $11 million during this final season, and after missing 2015 because of Tommy John surgery, he’s bounced back to go 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA and 10.9 K/9 ratio in his 26 starts since then.
3. JASON VARGAS, ROYALS
Unlike the Rangers, a revival seems unlikely for last-place Kansas City. And with the World Series core in danger of dissolving because of free agency, the Royals should get what they can when they can get it. Near the top of that movable-asset list is Jason Vargas, whose resurgence is coming at the perfect time for general manager Dayton Moore. Vargas, a 12-year vet, is enjoying his best season at age 34, with a 2.03 ERA that is third-best in the majors (his career ERA is 4.09). He also comes with a manageable $8-million salary in his walk year. The big question, of course, is whether he can keep this up.
4. JOHNNY CUETO, GIANTS
While it’s true that Cueto just got to the Bay Area — he’s only two months into the second season of his six-year, $130-million deal — the Giants rapidly are playing their way out of contention and have plenty of holes to fill. Nothing could help fix their outfield situation faster than dealing Cueto (Clint Frazier, anyone?), but the structure of his contract will have a say in his trade value. Cueto still is due roughly $110 million through 2021, with a 2022 club option for $22 million, but he also can opt out after this season and become a free agent all over again. Cueto, 31, has a 4.50 ERA after nine starts, well above his career 3.27 mark, but he’s a proven ace.
5. MATT MOORE,
Trading for Moore might involve a leap of faith, thinking back to the rising star who went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA for the Rays in 2013 while pitching in the heavy-hitting AL East. The Giants acquired him at the deadline last season, and one of the best parts about Moore is his affordable, controllable contract — as long as he can pitch like an ace again at some point. He’s making $7 million this season, with club options for 2018 ($9M) and 2019 ($10M). That would be great if Moore picks it up from his sluggish start (2-4, 5.37 ERA).
6. GERRIT COLE,
Despite the Pirates’ terrible start and steep uphill climb in the NL Central, prying Cole from GM Neal Huntington would take some creativity — and a boatload of talent — if Pittsburgh’s ace ever reaches the point of becoming available. Cole, 26, will earn $3.75 million this season and still has two more years of arbitration before getting to free agency. If Cole is off the table, how about a Bronx reunion for Ivan Nova? The Pirates locked him up with a three-year, $26-million contract in the offseason and he has rejuvenated his career in Pittsburgh, with a 2.48 ERA and 8.25 K/BB rate, the best in the majors, this season.
7. ALEX COBB, RAYS
As the Rays inevitably look to reload again, Cobb is likely the easiest starter to move, ahead of Jake Odorizzi, because he’ll be a free agent at the end of this season. Cobb, 29, appears to have bounced back from the Tommy John surgery that killed his 2015 season and limited him to five starts. Through Friday, Cobb was 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA, but his 6.1 K/9 ratio is well below his pre-TJ mark of 8.1. He also isn’t much of a financial commitment, earning $4.2 million in his walk year.
8. ERVIN SANTANA, TWINS
This is under the presumption that the surprising Twins, currently atop the AL Central, fall back toward the bottom, which most people had predicted for them before Opening Day. Otherwise, it will be difficult for Minnesota to move Santana, who is 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA and 0.885 WHIP, which ties him with Clayton Kershaw for fourth-best in the majors. Santana, 34, is off to perhaps the best start of his 13-year career, but could he be worth more in the potential haul he’d bring back for the rebuilding Twins? He’s still due close to $25 million through 2018, with a 2019 option ($14 million) that could vest based on health and innings pitched.
9. SONNY GRAY, A’s
Gray seemed on track for stardom after finishing third on the 2015 AL Cy Young ballot. But a forearm injury derailed him the subsequent season, limiting him to 22 starts, and he’s 6-12 with a 5.41 ERA and 1.453 WHIP since that Cy Young push. This year has been a positive step, as Gray is down to a 3.47 ERA through four starts. If the improvement continues, he should generate serious interest, with a $3.58-million salary and two more arbitration years before free agency. There’s little doubt that the aggressive Billy Beane will be shopping him.