Now that CC Sabathia has opted against opting out, the starting pitchers available in the 2011 free agent class pale in comparison to the offensive players testing the market. However, there are viable options to consider, including C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, and the soon to be posted Japanese standout Yu Darvish.
Although Brian Cashman will undoubtedly give careful thought to every prominent free agent starter, more and more, it seems as if the Yankees’ primary focus will be acquiring one in a trade. This strategy makes sense for several reasons. For starters (pun intended), there are heightened risks associated with many of the more attractive free agents (age for Buerhle and Oswalt; lack of a track record for Wilson and Darvish). Because these free agents would likely require a lucrative long-term contract (or in Darvish’s case, a hefty posting fee), a cost-risk analysis might not justify the pitcher’s expected contribution. Besides, in free agency, a team is often forced to pay more for past performance than future value, which especially seems likely among this group.
Another reason why it makes sense for Brian Cashman to explore a trade is because the Yankees have depth in their minor league system, particularly at pitcher and catcher. To some, that might be all the more reason to not make a move, but the recent release of Andrew Brackman is a cautionary tale. Less than eight months ago, Brackman was being touted as one of the Yankees’ three “killer-B’s”, but now he is looking for a job. Part of the reason for that decision was the Yankees’ prospect depth made Brackman’s 40-man roster spot a valuable commodity, but the tall right hander’s rapid fall from grace says more about the unpredictability of pitching prospects. Although the organization should not be adverse to allowing its own prospects to develop, each and every one should be on the table in the right deal.
With the rationale out of the way, the next step is to determine potential trade targets. Brian Cashman and his Yankees’ brain trust have likely already begun assembling such a list, but just in case they need some help, the Captain’s Blog will be spending the next week highlighting the top pitching trade targets whose acquisition would be worthy of a concerted effort. So, where to start?
Yankees’ Wish List Target #1: Felix Hernandez
Reining in the King remains a long shot, but he still belongs atop the Yankees’ wish list. Although the Mariners have maintained an unwillingness to deal Felix Hernandez, Seattle is still in a rebuilding phase, and 2012 begins the “backloaded” portion of the right handers’ reasonable contract extension. With $58 million owed to Hernandez over the next three seasons, the Mariners might not mind the salary relief if they can continue to build their roster. Obviously, a talent like Hernandez’ is rare, so in order to entice Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik to make a deal, Cashman would have to back up the truck.
A reasonable place to start would be one of the Yankees’ top two pitching prospects, Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances. If Seattle is going to give away a top ace, they’ll likely want back a pitcher who has the potential to be one down the road. However, a top pitching prospect would be just the beginning of this King’s ransom. Luckily, the Yankees and Mariners recently had blockbuster trade discussions, so some common ground has already been laid (and, admittedly, some mistrust). Cashman knows Zduriencik likes both Ivan Nova and Eduardo Nunez, for example, so both could be added to the deal as well. Under such a proposal, the Mariners would not only be getting a pitcher with potential, but also one who could step right into the rotation. In addition, Nunez could also help fill the void on the right side of the Mariners’ infield, assuming Seattle wasn’t scared away by his defensive struggles in 2011.
Is that enough to make a deal? It couldn’t hurt to ask, but based on the package the Mariners wanted for soon to be free agent Cliff Lee, probably not. That’s where Brett Gardner comes into play. The Mariners have been a franchise that values speed and defense, and no one personifies that more than the Yankees’ left fielder. With Ichiro playing out the final season of his contract, Gardner would not only give the Mariners a shutdown defense in 2012, but also provide a lead-off heir apparent going forward. Furthermore, Gardner would be another major league ready contributor, who, along with Nunez and Nova, could help the Mariners be competitive in the A.L. West at the same time the team rebuilds for the future. Finally, Seattle could also use the money saved in the deal to bid on Darvish, who could be a replacement for Ichiro in a market with strong Japanese influence. With all those factors considered, the Mariners could essentially recreate the same strategy that produced a record setting team in the wake of Alex Rodriguez‘ 2000 departure (although this time around, the resurgence would probably take a little longer).
Even though the Yankees would be getting a generational talent in Hernandez for at least three years, some fans might still bristle at the cost, especially because all four components of the proposed deal would involve homegrown talent. Also, Gardner and Nova were major contributors to the Yankees’ 2011 division title, so there would be considerable subtraction taking place. Having said that, Gardner and Nova could be viewed as two “sell high” candidates who may not have a ceiling much greater than their 2011 contributions (if the Mariners feel this way, then the deal would likely have to be sweetened). Besides, even if both players do have room for improvement, it’s still hard to argue against acquiring a pitcher like Hernandez, who at age 25 is only one year older than Nova and two years the senior of Betances. Although the Yankees would lose young talent with significant cost control, those concerns are easily mitigated by the one-two punch of Sabathia and Hernandez that would headline the team’s rotation until at least 2014.
Maybe the Yankees could get away offering a little bit less, or perhaps the Mariners might hold out for more, but either way, the two teams seem to have the right mix of players to satisfy the other’s long-term needs. Before doing anything else, it is incumbent upon Cashman to call Zduriencik, repeatedly if necessary, to see if there is a deal to be made. The worst that can happen is the Mariners’ GM will say no, leaving Cashman to move on down the wish list. The Captain’s Blog will continue to help with that task all this week, so be sure to check back in, even if you don’t occupy a chair at the Yankees’ inner circle.