There are moments when all of the elements in the New York Yankees' pitching universe are in perfect sync, making it almost possible to forget how desperately they need another starter. Almost.
Masahiro Tanaka's splitter reawakens, J.A. Happ's four-seam fastball becomes a weapon again and CC Sabathia's knee stops hurting. The Yankees can look as invincible as they did while sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays this week, convincing you the road to October—and specifically through the Houston Astros—is obstacle-free.
That would be true, except general manager Brian Cashman knows better. He said as much after trading for Edwin Encarnacion over the weekend, creating a lineup with frightening home run potential. Despite the upgrade, Cashman admitted, "I've got more work to do."
There was no need to explain further. The Yankees hit a record-setting 267 HRs last year but got knocked out in the American League Division Series. The real search is for pitching, not power—for the standalone ace who can match up with Justin Verlander or David Price.
After a steady ascent since 2016, the Yankees can't be content with another 100-win season if it ends with an early-round playoff exit. That's why the hunt begins and ends with Max Scherzer, the starter who can take the Bombers to the next level of dominance.
Is the Washington Nationals ace available? That remains to be seen. If the July 31 trade deadline were today, it's unlikely the Yankees—or anyone—would land Scherzer. But there are still approximately six weeks left for Cashman to outmaneuver his peers, not to mention convince Nationals GM Mike Rizzo that Washington would be better off without the game's most talented righty.
Here's one argument the Yankees could make: Scherzer will have 10-and-5 rights in 2020, which means he will control the narrative—he can veto any trade as if he had a full no-trade clause—not the club. The right-hander is making $37 million this year and is owed another $70-plus million through 2021.
If Rizzo is mulling the financial freedom that'd come with moving Scherzer, he'd be wise to act sooner than later. While the Yankees won't be the only ones pursuing Scherzer, owner Hal Steinbrenner effectively gave Cashman the go-ahead Wednesday to exceed the highest luxury-tax threshold ($246 million) if it meant significantly improving the roster. The Yankees are currently $20 million under that threshold.
The declaration made few headlines in New York, but don't underestimate its impact. Steinbrenner may have learned an important lesson from 2017, when the Yankees passed on Verlander at the trade deadline. A rival GM said Steinbrenner's refusal of Cashman's request to add Verlander's salary not only allowed the Astros to win a world championship but "changed the history" throughout the industry.
Verlander stopped the Yankees cold in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, setting up the Astros' pennant clincher the next night. And without a certifiable ace in 2018, the Yankees came up short again in October, this time against the Red Sox.
Cashman has a perfectly logical response to that in 2019: "When we're healthy, we have as good a starting rotation as anyone in this league."
But no one counted on Luis Severino being on the injured list since spring training with a Grade 2 lat strain. And even when he was healthy, the right-hander collapsed in the second half of 2018. Whether it was from fatigue or tipping his pitches as many suspected, Severino's ERA mushroomed from 2.31 to 5.57.
When the Yankees turned to Severino to outpitch Nathan Eovaldi at home in Game 3 of the ALDS, the result was an unmitigated disaster. The Sox scored six runs in three innings, knocking out Severino en route to a 16-1 flogging.
Cashman sought to address the void this winter by re-signing Happ, who went 7-0 after the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays last July. Trading for James Paxton was supposed to help, too. And there was still Tanaka, who Yankees fans love on the days he's on and wonder how he could be the same pitcher who randomly gets destroyed once every 4-5 starts.
And Sabathia, the lovable old warhorse? The Yankees were busy arguing his case for Cooperstown after his 250th career victory Wednesday against Tampa Bay. Sabathia became only the 14th pitcher in MLB history to win at least 250 games and have 3,000-plus strikeouts, joining Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton, among others.
Sabathia said "I idolize those guys" after proving how successful he can be when his cutter is working and his body feels young. Time and again, the 38-year-old Sabathia worked both corners, controlling the Rays' bat speed like no other Yankee pitcher can.
But Sabathia isn't the answer to the Bombers' long-term pitching woes. He's still vulnerable to bouts of arthritic pain in his right knee and sluggish spin rate on his cutter. It took Sabathia four attempts to win No. 250. Before making history Wednesday, his ERA in June was nearly 7.00.
That's why Cashman has to find the missing piece to his rotation. The answer could be Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer or Madison Bumgarner. All have their selling points, but none would be as devastatingly effective as Scherzer.
As Cashman said after the Yankees bowed out to Boston last year: "I don't want to be talking in some article 20 years from now about the Yankees team that broke the home run record but. ... We play for one thing, and that's to win in October."
Let's see if he remembers that in July.