As the baseball Hot Stove slowly builds from early embers, the Captain’s Blog will be busy identifying the top pitching targets the Yankees should consider pursuing in a trade. In part one, a game plan to acquire Felix Hernandez was devised. Admittedly, such an acquisition probably falls more under the heading of wishful thinking than a wish list, so just in case that advice proves unsuccessful, one of two backup plans is now presented.
Because of the short porch at Yankee Stadium, left handed pitching has always been a coveted commodity in the Bronx. That’s why last year’s blueprint revolved around the acquisition of Cliff Lee and return of Andy Pettitte. However, when both lefties decided against pitching in pinstripes, it left the Yankees with CC Sabathia as the team’s lone southpaw. As a result, the Yankees ended the 2011 season with only 33 starts by a left hander, one of the lowest totals in franchise history.
Three of the most prominent free agent pitchers (C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, and Mark Buehrle) are left handed, so if the Yankees decide to enter the market, they should be able to find a complement for Sabathia. In addition, several lefties may also be available on the trade market. Two of the more attractive options are presented below.
Top Left Handed Starters, Ranked by WAR: 2010-2011
After taking is lumps as a 23-year old starter in 2009, Gio Gonzalez has gradually, and quietly, emerged as one of the top left handers in the game. Over the last two seasons, Gonzalez ranks seventh among all lefty starters with a bWAR of 9.2 and well within striking distance of the top spot. He has also pitched over 200 innings in both seasons and posted an ERA+ hovering around 130. Considering he will be only 26 in 2012, there’s every reason to expect continued improvement from Gonzalez, which is precisely why the Yankees should make him a prime target.
Unlike Hernandez, Gio Gonzalez doesn’t come without caution. His relatively smallish frame is always a concern, as is the wildness he has often exhibited. Although Gonzalez has whittled his walks down to four per game, allowing that many free base runners might not translate well to Yankee Stadium and the A.L. East. In a small sample size, however, Gonzalez has actually pitched relatively well against every division opponent but the Red Sox, so perhaps that fear might be a bit exaggerated.
The obvious question is why would the Athletics want to trade a promising young left hander? According to Ken Rosenthal, their motivation would probably be financial. While the Athletics try to figure out the future of their franchise, particularly whether or not they will be relocating to San Jose, cost will always be a concern, which is why Gonzalez, who will be eligible for arbitration this off season, might be dangled as trade bait.
In return for Gonzalez, the Athletics would probably prefer cheap to major league ready. However, Billy Beane would likely be most enticed by a player who offers the best of both worlds. Jesus Montero fits the bill perfectly, but if the young catcher’s early offensive returns are an indication, that might be too high a price to pay. By taking Montero off the table, Cashman would likely have no choice but to part with either Ivan Nova, Dellin Betances, or Manny Banuelos in addition to an offensive prospect. Would Gary Sanchez fit the bill? Depending on Beane’s appraisal of that pitching trio, a third player might have to be added. Or, the Yankees could instead provide additional salary relief by taking a contract off the Athletics’ hands (Brian Fuentes comes to mind).
Following the 2009 season, John Danks was in a similar place to where Gonzalez is now. He was coming off his second strong campaign in only his third major league season, and, at age-25, looked to be on the ascendant. However, over the last two seasons, the White Sox left hander has taken a step back. Despite compiling the 11th highest bWAR by a left handed starter since 2010, Danks past two years have shown signs of regression. Or have they?
Although Danks’ 2011 ERA+ was a below average 97, the lefty still managed to post near career-best strikeout and walk rates. He did give up considerably more hits, but some of those may have been attributable to bad luck. Following three seasons in which his BABIP never rose above .293, Danks posted an inordinately high rate of .313. However, a corresponding increase in hits leaving the ballpark did not occur. So, if Danks’ BABIP returns to normal levels, the chance of a resurgence appears strong.
Danks will be pitching in his age-27 season in 2012, but he has already exhausted all but one year of arbitration eligibility. As a result, not only are the White Sox looking at a 2012 salary well in excess of the $6 million he made last season, but they also run the risk of losing him to free agency in 2013. Combined with his two-year regression, Danks’ contract status mitigates his trade value, potentially creating a “buy low” situation.
The White Sox aren’t going to simply give Danks away, but it isn’t a stretch to think they might be willing to take a package of second tier prospects. Considering how rapidly catching prospect Tyler Flowers has fallen in many evaluator’s estimation, the White Sox might be attracted to an almost major league ready player like Austine Romine. Similarly, pitchers like Hector Noesi or Adam Warren might appeal as cheap options ready to step into the back end of the rotation. Whatever the pieces happen to be, the Yankees have plenty of depth, so they might be able pry Danks away without surrendering a top prospect.
According to most accounts, Gio Gonzlaez and John Danks will each be made available this off season, so Brian Cashman should at least have a chance to make his best offer. Although neither pitcher is a sure thing like King Felix, the prospect of a mid-20s left hander is still very appealing. Assuming the scouts give a “thumbs up”, there’s no reason not to be aggressive in pursuit of either southpaw. And, if that still doesn’t work out, there are also some more solid right handed pitchers to consider (which is what I’ll do tomorrow).