The New York Yankees have been the biggest non-story of the off-season. Not surprisingly, given the role the Yankees play in baseball’s shared consciousness, this non-story has itself become one of the major themes of this off-season. Shortly after the World Series, the Yankees renegotiated a big contract with their ace pitcher CC Sabathia. Since resigning Sabathia, the team has done almost nothing. They have signed Hideki Okajima to a minor league contract, parted ways with longtime catching star Jorge Posada, but made no significant changes to their major league roster.
The Yankees are by no means a team without holes. After Sabathia, their starting pitching is spotty at best. Their offense, while still very strong, is aging. Mainstays like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and possibly Nick Swisher and Russell Martin are in the decline phases of their careers. The Yankees have also not been involved in any major trades. This is partially because so many of their contracts, like those of Rodriguez, Teixeira or pitcher AJ Burnett are very hard to move, but also because of a strong reluctance to trade Jesus Montero, Manuel Banuelos or any other of their top prospects. Similarly, the Yankees have not gone after any of the top free agents. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols were less appealing to the Yankees because they have Teixeira under contract at first and expect to move Rodriguez into the DH slot in the coming years. Jose Reyes would have been a good fit on paper, but moving Jeter off of shortstop is not going to happen until the captain himself makes that decision. The Yankees also evinced a healthy reluctance to offer pitcher CJ Wilson a long term contract.
While individually all these decisions make sense, the result is that other than probably upgrading from Posada to Montero at DH, this team is unlikely to be any better than the one that was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in 2011. Unlike other teams, the Yankees never take a year to rebuild, so it should be assumed that they are seeking to contend again in 2012. To do this, the Yankees could slightly upgrade their offense at a corner outfield position or add a few bats off the bench, but the most useful thing they could do is add a starting pitcher.
While the Yankee ownership has indicated that it does not want to add a lot of payroll this off-season, precedent shows that a slow start will cause the ownership to revisit that notion during the season; and a bad year will lead the team to spend a lot of money in the off-season. The Yankees should not so much be concerned about adding payroll as about adding big long term contracts that will force them to pay top dollar to aging players three or more years from now. This is the problem they will face with the contracts belonging to Teixeira, Rodriguez and now Sabathia beginning sometime around 2014.
The Yankees do not need an ace as they already have one in Sabathia, but they need a solid number two starter. Their pitching rotation is set now with Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett following Sabathia, but none of these other four pitchers are a real number two starter. Having five starters on the roster and having a good five man rotation are not the same thing. Currently the Yankees have the former, but not the latter.
The Yankees can best fill their need by signing a proven pitcher to a short, preferably one year, contract. This would allow the team the possibility of phasing in pitching prospects like Banuelos or Dellin Betances while not tying up much money beyond 2012. In most cases, it is hard to fill a specific need of this kind, but this off-season is different.
The most obvious way the Yankees can bolster their pitching and limit their long term financial commitment is to sign Roy Oswalt to a one year deal. That one year would not be cheap, probably in the $12-$15 million range, but Oswalt could be worth it. Oswalt is probably no longer the ace he once was, but he is only one year removed from an ERA+ of 146 and leading the NL in WHIP. Even last year, although his 9-10 win loss record was not impressive, his peripheral numbers were good. He struck out 93 while only issuing 31 unintentional walks. It is easy to see Oswalt as the number two starter on the Yankees behind Sabathia. While this would not give the Yankees a top of the rotation comparable to the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies or Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, it would probably give the Yankees a respectable number two who could keep them in a game against a good playoff team.
If the Yankees don’t sign Oswalt now, they will very likely face the same problem regarding starting pitching in 2012 that they faced in 2011. If this scenario unfolds, as the trading deadline approaches this season, the Yankees will be forced to trade one of their prospects for less than what that prospect is worth now. Signing Oswalt then is not only a way to immediately bolster their pitching staff, but it is also a way to help prevent Yankee management from panicking next July.