How the Yankees can boost their pitching staff in 2024

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals, yankees
William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

As the Yankees look to bolster their pitching staff this winter, the team will have to get creative with their offseason game plan. The pitching market has seen some key figures come off the board for the team, but the Yankees can still upgrade both their rotation and bullpen this winter. Free agency and the trade market have multiple routes for the team to take as they try to make their pitching staff better, but who exactly can they turn to for those upgrades? Finding the perfect target isn’t as simple as people think. However, they’ll have to acquire multiple arms to shore up their staff.

It’s impossible to acquire pitching without taking some risks, but the Yankees could get significantly better with these additions this winter.

Making a Trade for a Former Cy Young Winner

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Cleveland Guardians
Jul 4, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Guardians starting pitcher Shane Bieber (57) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

While options like Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell outperformed Shane Bieber last season, he wouldn’t require the nine-figure contract that the two southpaws would command. Bieber posted a 3.80 ERA across 128 innings this past season, his second-straight season where his velocity sat at 91-92 MPH. The regression in velocity isn’t the primary reason for the down year in 2023, as most people would think, as Bieber posted a 2.88 ERA across 31 starts while also dominating in the postseason in 2022.

The big issue seemed to be the lack of breaking balls, as both his slider and curveball usage went down this past season, and he relied more on his four-seamer and cutter. Concerns about his health are fair, and perhaps the elbow inflammation he suffered midseason had something to do with his decreased reliance on his breaking balls, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be healthier in 2024. Shane Bieber is spending his offseason at Driveline, and they’ve excelled at getting more velocity out of pitchers even as they enter their 30s.

Not only could we see Bieber add a tick to his fastball, but it also indicates a cleaner bill of health than the public would believe. Training to gain velocity and getting biomechanical data on your mechanics would reveal ailments with one’s UCL or elbow, and there’s nothing that has come out about the 28-year-old needing to shut down his throwing program. He also looked fine when he returned from his IL stint late in the season and still finished the season with a sub-4 ERA and league-average peripherals.

Projections like what Shane Bieber can be for 2024, believing he’ll toss 193 innings with a 3.91 ERA and 2.9 fWAR, which would certainly bolster the middle of their rotation. With both Gerrit Cole and Clarke Schmidt making over 30 starts last season, Bieber slots in perfectly at the backend of their rotation, and he likely wouldn’t cost much on the trade market either.

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mlb: washington nationals at new york yankees, everson pereira
Aug 24, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Everson Pereira (80) reacts after hitting a double against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. The hit was the first of his major league career. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Everson Pereira could likely headline a deal for Shane Bieber, as the Guardians need outfield help, and while he doesn’t have to open the season in the Majors, he could fight for a job in Spring Training and iron out some of his hit tool issues in Triple-A. Cleveland has done an excellent job with developing guys with great hit tools, and while Pereira will never run low strikeout rates, the goal is just to make them manageable. He makes great swing decisions, has excellent raw power, plays good defense in the corner outfield, and can be a plus on the bases as well.

As for a second piece in a deal, I think left-hander Edgar Barclay would be a nice throw-in for the Guardians, as he showed some promise last season. He was dominant out of the bullpen in Somerset, posting a 1.32 ERA and striking out 37.8% of batters faced across 34 innings pitched. He’d be promoted from Double-A to Triple-A later in the season but struggled when asked to be a full-time starter for the team. Through the first two innings of outings, he’d hold a 2.70 ERA, but from the third inning onward, he had a staggering 8.51 ERA and 26:24 strikeout-to-walk rate.

He would make for an excellent relief option with his strong changeup, even though he doesn’t throw extremely hard due to his smaller frame. It’s a two-for-one swap headlined by two players, Bieber and Pereira, that comes with extreme risk, but it’s a fine gamble to take given their excellent outfield depth and the upcoming talent in the system with bats like Spencer Jones and Jasson Dominguez.

Adding a Reliable Swingman to Their Bullpen

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants
Sep 27, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Sean Manaea (52) throws against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Oracle Park. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

With Shane Bieber acquired, the Yankees won’t need to do a bullpen game for their fifth starter, but that doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t have that flexibility if need be. If you’re opening the season with a rotation featuring Carlos Rodon, Nestor Cortes, and Shane Bieber, you need to be prepared to lose one of your starters at any point in time. Another question is whether Clarke Schmidt will build off of his 2023 season or take a step back, and Sean Manaea covers the Yankees on both fronts. He’s an excellent reliever who has found a second wind as a starter, thanks to a new sweeper.

Last season, we saw Sean Manaea post a 4.44 ERA across 117.2 innings pitched, and while that seems underwhelming, his numbers following the addition of a sweeper were extremely encouraging. The left-hander would post a 3.60 ERA and 3.18 FIP across his final 81 innings pitched, most notably reducing his barrel rate to just 6% and bringing his HR/9 rate well below one (0.64). When the Giants threw him back into their rotation for the final few weeks of the season, Manaea had a 2.25 ERA and 3.21 FIP due to a strong groundball rate and low walk rate.

Something that Manaea would utilize more down the stretch was his changeup as well, and at Driveline, he’s currently working on a splitter that could help him better improve against right-handed batters. They slashed .253/.327/.446 with a 1.42 HR./9 against the southpaw, and while his sweeper was excellent (.203 wOBA), it often plays worse to opposite-handed hitters. A splitter, however tends to work well against opposite-handed hitters, and that could reduce some of the damage they do to him enough to improve his ceiling.

He’s projected to make $24 million over two years, according to FanGraphs, and I believe that’s in line with what we’ll see for him in 2024. Perhaps there’s a player opt-out or incentive-based one that could work out for both parties, and the Yankees would get a notable upgrade to their pitching staff with him on the team. It’s an insurance policy that could give them a great multi-inning threat or spot starter. He can also compete for a job out of Spring Training with Clarke Schmidt, who has been used in a similar role back in 2022.

This also allows the Yankees to have somebody who can fill the Jhony Brito role, and while Manaea has struggled to be consistent in his career, his new pitches, coupled with his improved velocity, would lead me to believe he’s better than the pitcher we saw in 2022. The Yankees could also use another left-handed arm in their bullpen, another box that Sean Manaea checks off for the team. He’s a multi-purpose pitcher with plenty of upside and utility, as his role can change as the team’s needs change as well.

Sean Manaea is going to provide 100-120 productive innings somewhere, and I believe the Yankees could greatly benefit from that kind of upside. He could provide the rotation with much-needed insurance and give Aaron Boone more options in the bullpen when he doesn’t want to turn to Clay Holmes or Jonathan Loaisiga. Steamer projects him for a 4.24 ERA over 28 starts, which is above-average run prevention over solid volume and good for a 2.0 fWAR.

Yankees Could Unlock This Deadline Acquisition

MLB: New York Yankees at Miami Marlins
Aug 13, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Keynan Middleton (93) tosses the baseball to first base and retires Miami Marlins right fielder Jesus Sanchez (not pictured) during the eighth inning at loanDepot Park. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Keynan Middleton was one of the best-kept secrets on the team last year, ranking in the 96th Percentile in Whiff Rate (36%) and sporting a 3.38 ERA between the White Sox and Yankees last season. The hard-throwing right-hander has an excellent three-pitch mix, with all pitches he featured generating a Whiff Rate north of 30%. He’s entering his age-30 season and improved with the Yankees when they had him increase his slider usage against right-handed hitters, causing him to hold them to a sub-.300 wOBA and OBP with the Bronx Bombers.

On a cheap deal, Middleton could greatly improve the middle of the Yankees’ bullpen, giving them another hard thrower with excellent secondaries as well. The Yankees wouldn’t have to pay much to retain him, and he mentioned that he immediately shaved upon receiving word that he was dealt to the Bronx. While the team floundered, Middleton posted a 1.88 ERA, and there’s a real chance he could be a high-leverage reliever for the team if the changes he made can stick. He also showed an ability to give the Yankees two innings if need be, versatility that will help this bullpen plenty.

As for a potential contract, a two-year $10 million deal would give Middleton a huge increase over his MiLB deal with the White Sox the year prior, but it would only cost $5 million towards the Luxury Tax. Adding a low-cost arm for two years specifically would also give the bullpen insurance as Jonathan Loaisiga, Tommy Kahnle, and Clay Holmes all enter free agency next winter. This is an addition that takes your bullpen to the next level, as you have a unit with plenty of different repertoires and excellent stuff:

  • Sean Manaea
  • Scott Effross
  • Keynan Middleton
  • Jonathan Loaisiga
  • Tommy Kahnle
  • Victor Gonzalez
  • Ian Hamilton
  • Clay Holmes

It’s a deep and talented bullpen, one that could rival any unit in the game, and with the upper-level MiLB depth the Yankees have with Ron Marinaccio, Luis Gil, Yoendrys Gomez, Clayton Beeter, and Will Warren, they’ll certainly have enough arms to get through the season. It’s not the sexiest game plan, but it makes the team considerably better and leaves them flexible enough to make a splash move at the deadline if need be.

An arm to look out for at some point this season is top pitching prospect Chase Hampton, who has an excellent fastball-cutter-sweeper mix that propelled him to Double-A in just his first season as a professional. The Yankees’ pitching development and philosophy will be tested this year, as they rely less on roster turnover and more on getting positive expected value on the market and finding guys internally to step up.

It comes out to $29 million towards the Luxury Tax, but none of these moves are long-term commitments, so they could be off the books by the end of the 2025 season, and it would add roughly 4.5 WAR to the roster, roughly $6.4 million per WAR. Health will be a question all year for the Yankees, but this plan would make them better and, most importantly, more prepared for the unavoidable injuries during the season.