How Yankees Can Still Make Impact Upgrade to Questionable Rotation

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The New York Yankees are rebuilding. They're also trying to win. That's how it works in the Bronx.

Those aren't mutually exclusive goals. Last season, the Yankees sold at the trade deadline and restocked a farm system that Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter subsequently ranked No. 1 in the game. They also stayed in the playoff picture until late September thanks to contributions from youngsters such as catcher and American League Rookie of the Year runner-up Gary Sanchez.

It's possible to shed costly pieces and compete at the same time.

This winter, the Yanks traded veteran backstop Brian McCann to the Houston Astros for prospects. They also handed one year and $13 million to aging slugger Matt Holliday and a whopping five years and $86 million to closer Aroldis Chapman.

Clearly, general manager Brian Cashman is treading the line between a full-blown fire sale and keeping his team competitive. Hardcore fans are surely rejoicing the burgeoning youth movement, but the casual observers who put butts in seats at Yankee Stadium want to watch a winner.

To that end, Cashman has work left to do. Specifically, he has to improve a starting rotation that's littered with question marks and could be the club's undoing.

We'll explore how he can accomplish that in a moment. First, let's drill a little deeper on where the Yankees stand.

New York is in decent shape on offense, with seasoned bats such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley and Brett Gardner joining the nascent brigade led by Sanchez, masher Aaron Judge and top-rated outfield prospect Clint Frazier.

The bullpen is robust behind the dual threats of Chapman and super-setup man Dellin Betances.

The starting five, meanwhile, is a concerning mishmash.

Ace Masahiro Tanaka threw 199.2 innings in 2016, his highest total since coming over from Japan three seasons ago, and posted a 3.07 ERA.

The Yankees rotation is questionable behind ace Masahiro Tanaka.
The Yankees rotation is questionable behind ace Masahiro Tanaka.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Behind him, there's hard-throwing right-hander Michael Pineda, who has shown flashes of brilliance but posted a 4.82 ERA in 2016, and 36-year-old southpaw CC Sabathia.

After that, the Yankees are counting on some combination of Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, Chad Green and Adam Warren. All except Mitchell owned ERAs north of 4.00 last season, and Green has a grand total of eight big league starts under his belt.

That's not a disaster if everything breaks right, but it's uncertainty on stilts.

So what are New York's options? The club could mortgage the farm and go after a top-tier trade candidate such as the Tampa Bay Rays' Chris Archer or the Chicago White Sox's Jose Quintana.

The Yankees, however, didn't make a serious play for White Sox ace Chris Sale, who wound up with the archrival Boston Red Sox. It's unlikely New York will suddenly become a big-time buyer.

There are lesser trade targets. The Kansas City Royals may be looking to shed payroll with multiple key pieces due to hit free agency next offseason.

Mercurial right-hander Yordano Ventura is Kansas City's flashiest pitching piece, but southpaw Danny Duffy is an interesting, under-the-radar possibility.

The 27-year-old went 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA in 179.2 innings last season with 188 strikeouts next to 42 walks.

Southpaw Danny Duffy may be available via trade from the Kansas City Royals.
Southpaw Danny Duffy may be available via trade from the Kansas City Royals.Brian Blanco/Getty Images

He has a final year of arbitration remaining before he tastes the market, which means he doesn't necessarily fit with a long-term vision. It also means he won't cost a massive haul in prospects.

Duffy is a fly-ball pitcher, which could hurt him in the home run-happy confines at 1 East 161st Street. He'd slot in nicely behind Sabathia, however, and give New York another proven mid-rotation arm.

Turning to the free-agent stew, there's meat to be picked from the bones.

"I think it's less likely that we wind up with a starter," Cashman said of the free-agent options, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "It's a tough market to be finding one in it."

Tough, but not impossible.

Right-hander Jason Hammel was a workmanlike contributor for the Chicago Cubs rotation with a 3.83 ERA in 166.2 innings last season.

The Yanks were "sniffing around" Hammel in November, per the New York Post's George A. King III, and he's unsigned as of this writing.

Another name that could pique their olfactory response is Ivan Nova. New York traded Nova and his 4.90 ERA to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the deadline last season.

Former Yankee Ivan Nova thrived after a trade-deadline deal to the Pittsburgh Pirates and is now on the free-agent block.
Former Yankee Ivan Nova thrived after a trade-deadline deal to the Pittsburgh Pirates and is now on the free-agent block.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

He excelled with the Bucs to the tune of a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts. The 29-year-old Dominican Republic native was stellar in stretches after making his MLB debut with the Yankees in 2010 and could be a bounce-back candidate.

Speaking of which, here's one more option: Doug Fister.

Yes, Fister put up a career-worst 4.64 ERA last season and will turn 33 in February. As CBSSports.com's Mike Axisa put it, "The trend is not pretty."

Fister, however, has been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career. He was a top-10 Cy Young Award finisher with the Washington Nationals in 2014. He could be had on a short-term, show-me contract that won't bust the bank.

None of these names will make the Yankees instant World Series favorites. Some may argue they'd be better off cashing in a gaggle of minor league chips for an Archer or a Quintana, or standing pat.

As Cashman threads the needle between retooling and relevance, however, he'd be wise to add some impact depth to his stable of arms.

He has a mandate to play the kids and grow the farm. He also has to try to win.

That's how it works in the Bronx. And this is how it goes when you're chasing starting pitching in the thin, cold winter of 2016.