Yankees Already Have Stud Pitcher They Need in 98 MPH Lefty Justus Sheffield

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2018

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 21:  Justus Sheffield #98 of the New York Yankees poses for a portrait during the New York Yankees photo day on February 21, 2017 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The team that won the World Series just added the best pitcher available on the winter trade market. The team that lost to the eventual champions in the ALCS did not.

That's actually not a problem for the New York Yankees, who no longer feel the need to scratch every itch with a splashy acquisition.

The Yankees aren't out of that business altogether. They made one of the moves of the winter when they traded for Giancarlo Stanton, they're still considered a possible destination for Yu Darvish and if they follow through on the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, they'll be set up to play big on a much bigger free-agent market after this season.

But they had no desperate need for Gerrit Cole, which is why they could declare their top four prospects off limits in their trade talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reported. The Yankees could have told the Pirates they couldn't have 21-year-old left-hander Justus Sheffield, among others, because Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knew that by the middle of the season Sheffield might be all the rotation help the Yankees need.

"I would have to think he helps them this year," said one National League scout who follows the Yankees farm system closely and considers Sheffield their top young arm. "The only thing he needs to improve is fastball command. But it's all there. Everything [about his stuff] is plus. Once he clears up [the fastball command], he's definitely a top-of-the-rotation guy. He's going to be really, really good."

Not every scout who has seen Sheffield agrees, with some seeing him fitting closer to the back end of a major league rotation.

"He reminds me a little of Mike Hampton," said one scout who works for an American League team.

Hampton won 148 games in a 16-year career and once finished second in Cy Young voting, so even that assessment isn't completely negative. And given that Sheffield is a lefty who stands a tick under 6'0" tall, as Hampton did, he doesn't grab your attention walking to the mound.

ESPN.com reported the Yankees wouldn't consider trading Sheffield in a deal for Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole.
ESPN.com reported the Yankees wouldn't consider trading Sheffield in a deal for Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

But what happens once he gets there can be pretty special. According to Baseball America, Sheffield threw his fastball as hard as 98 mph during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He also throws a slider at 84-87 mph, and the scout who loves Sheffield praised him for the way he mixes his pitches and his feel for the game.

If not for an oblique injury that limited him to 17 starts and 93.1 innings at Double-A Trenton, Sheffield might already have been on the verge of breaking into the major league rotation. As it was, the Yankees sent him to the Fall League to make up for the time missed, and they were rewarded by seeing him walk just three and strike out 20 in 20.1 innings against other top prospects.

They can have him start 2018 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, even if they don't add any more starters this winter, because by re-signing CC Sabathia they kept together the entire rotation that took them to Game 7 against the Houston Astros last October. They have Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Sabathia, and they also have guys like Chad Green who could move out of the bullpen if needed.

A year ago, the rotation was a major question. But Severino developed into an ace, Tanaka pitched extremely well down the stretch and the Yankees traded for Gray. Just as importantly, the Yankees kept their deep bullpen intact, which means new manager Aaron Boone should be able to limit the innings thrown by the back-end guys in the rotation.

The Astros, with a more unsettled rotation and a lesser bullpen, had a greater need for Cole. Because of the depth in their farm system, they were able to get him while also leaving several of their top prospects out of discussions with the Pirates.

Luis Severino's development in 2017 was huge for the Yankees. Perhaps Sheffield can eventually make a similar impact.
Luis Severino's development in 2017 was huge for the Yankees. Perhaps Sheffield can eventually make a similar impact.Elsa/Getty Images

It's always dangerous to count on any one pitching prospect, no matter how good his stuff or reputation. Some young pitchers get hurt, others struggle with adjusting to the big leagues. Severino went from top prospect in 2015, out of the rotation in 2016, to top of the rotation in 2017.

It could be that Chance Adams is the young starter who ends up helping the Yankees this year, or that Albert Abreu overtakes Sheffield as the best young high-end arm the Yankees have. Abreu was one of two pitchers the Yankees got from the Astros in exchange for Brian McCann, four months after they added Sheffield as part of the Andrew Miller trade with the Cleveland Indians. One scout who studied the Yankees system in 2017 pointed to 21-year-old right-hander Freicer Perez, who was at low Class A Charleston but impressed greatly.

For now, Sheffield is the best bet to help soon, and the best bet to help big. And if the Yankees end up playing the Astros again in October, perhaps Sheffield will be the guy who matches up with Gerrit Cole.

              

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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