Yankees Passing on Patrick Corbin Megadeal Could Haunt Them

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 17, 2019

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Patrick Corbin reacts after getting Los Angeles Dodgers' Austin Barnes to ground into an inning-ending double pay during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, May 9, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

If only the New York Yankees had signed Patrick Corbin, they might not need a starting pitcher.

They're certainly scrambling to find one before the July 31 trade deadline. This is apparent from what's on the rumor mill as well as from words that have come from general manager Brian Cashman:

In fairness, the Yankees' desperation level isn't too extreme. Their 60-33 record is the best in the American League and good for a six-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East.

Still, that's not quite as good as the 8.5-game lead the Yankees held July 5. And their starting rotation has been an issue for a while. It began the year with a 3.76 ERA through May. Its ERA since June 1, however, is just 4.72.

Ace right-hander Luis Severino hasn't pitched all season because of right rotator cuff inflammation. Fellow righty Masahiro Tanaka has been good but not the dominant force he was at his career peak in 2016. Left-handers James Paxton, J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia have experienced all sorts of ups and downs in combining for a 4.33 ERA.

The Yankees' best and most consistent pitcher has been Domingo German, who's broken out with a solid 3.40 ERA. But with 86 innings between the majors and minors, he's already only 37.1 frames from matching his career high as a professional.

An impact trade acquisition—e.g., a Madison Bumgarner, a Marcus Stroman or a Robbie Ray—would certainly fortify the Yankees rotation, not to mention give them the depth to better match up against pitching-rich clubs (namely the Houston Astros) in October.

Hence why the Yankees are indeed treating pitching help as more of a need than a want. According to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, none of the club's top prospects is untouchable in trade talks.

Now for the obligatory question: Where was this sense of urgency when the Yankees were courting Corbin?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Corbin entered free agency last year fresh off posting a 3.15 ERA and striking out 246 batters over 200 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was obviously the best starting pitcher on the free-agent market, yet the Clay, New York, native made no secret of his preferred destination.

"It would definitely be great to play [in New York]," the lefty told Bob Nightengale of USA Today in April 2018. "I grew up a Yankee fan. My whole family are Yankee fans. My mom, my dad, my grandpa, everybody. Really, every generation of my family has been Yankee fans."

As luck would have it, the Yankees began the offseason with three open slots in their rotation. Never mind just negotiations. A deal between the Yankees and Corbin seemed inevitable.

What actually happened was this: Corbin signed with the Washington Nationals in December for $140 million over six years.

Corbin, who will turn 30 on Friday, got away from the Yankees because they didn't feel compelled to chase him after they quickly filled two rotation slots via a free-agent deal with Sabathia and a trade for Paxton.

In the words of Andy Martino of SNY.tv, the Paxton trade "bought them some leeway to avoid going crazy in the Corbin bidding." Accordingly, they never budged from their willingness to only go as far as a five-year offer.

The Yankees' thinking wasn't illogical. Despite his 2018 excellence, Corbin did have bust potential. And once the Yankees acquired Paxton, they effectively acquired Corbin lite. The 30-year-old southpaw had posted a 3.76 ERA and struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings for the Seattle Mariners in 2018.

Once the Yankees re-signed Happ later in December, they'd filled out their rotation without taking any leaps as risky as cutting Corbin a $140 million check. That was arguably good enough, as their rotation indeed only needed to be good enough to support an offense (MLB-record 267 home runs) and bullpen (AL-record 9.2 FanGraphs WAR) that had led the way in 2018.

The potential pitfalls of this approach, however, were never that obscure.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Yankees would need somebody else to be their stopper if Severino failed to recover from the slump that wrecked the back half of his 2018 season. Paxton had the potential to be that guy but only if he finally achieved health and consistency. If both continued to elude him, it would be up to post-prime versions of Tanaka, Happ and Sabathia to carry the New York rotation.

With the exception of Severino's injured shoulder—which the Yankees couldn't have seen coming—the worst-case scenario for the rotation has pretty much played out.

Paxton has been a particular disappointment. A bout with left knee inflammation has limited him to 16 starts, in which he's struggled with walks and a diminishing strikeout rate.

Meanwhile for Washington, Corbin has thus far been immune to worst-case scenarios.

He fell into a brief rut in late May and early June, but he's otherwise dominated en route to a 3.39 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 119.1 innings. He's even erased two questions that were looming over his head by upping his fastball velocity and cutting down his hard-hit rate.

Granted, only about one-twelfth of Corbin's deal is in the bag. But for now, the Nats have every right to brag:

It's impossible to say whether Corbin would be having the same season if he'd signed with the Yankees. But on a probability scale, his ability to maintain his 2018 dominance was always more likely than Paxton building on his.

That the Yankees didn't want to pay to take that chance might have been logical, but don't call it admirable. Major League Baseball doesn't give out bonus points for any kind of cost-per-win ratio. Only wins matter, and the Yankees are the last team that should be looking to cut corners in pursuit of them.

They're worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes, with annual revenue approaching $670 million. As if these figures alone aren't good enough excuses for New York to go hard after Corbin, there was also the reality that it had finally reset its luxury-tax penalties in 2018.

Instead, the Yankees chose the risk-averse route, and it's backfired. Perhaps they'll fix things by landing a facsimile of Corbin from the trade market, but it'll hurt if they have to surrender electric righty Deivi Garcia or toolsy outfielder Estevan Florial from their farm system.

If they aren't already, perhaps that would make the Yankees lament not simply paying money for Corbin.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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