As of right now, FanGraphs has Clayton Beeter as the fifth starter for the Yankees entering 2024, but it looks like the job is right now an open competition. The Yankees finished in the bottom half of the league in ERA and WAR, and they’ll need some bouncebacks from key starters like Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes, but they also need to figure out who is taking the ball every fifth day. Arms like Clayton Beeter, Yoendrys Gomez, and Luis Gil haven’t taken off as full-time starters yet or have underlying injury concerns that could limit them, and Will Warren has yet to throw a single MLB pitch.
With that being said, the Yankees may be left with no choice, as a free agent market that has become unappealing for most teams could pigeonhole the team into finding a more unique path to filling the fifth starter spot.
Will the Yankees Have to Look Internally For a Starter?
The Yankees are a team that historically hasn’t placed rookies in their rotation on full-time roles, and that’s largely because they’ve always been in contention. 2024 is a unique situation because as they make an all-in push for the World Series, they also have a plethora of young talent that could break through, and Will Warren is one of those arms who have proven themselves at every Minor League level and await a chance at the big league level to debut. It would be quite the task to sell the fanbase on Warren as your fifth starter, but how do his projections compare to starters on the market?
Frankie Montas was seen as a lock to come back to the Yankees on a cheap one-year deal, and while he did sign a one-year deal, it was for $16 million, certainly not cheap. He’s projected for a 4.42 ERA across 150 innings for the Reds next season, whereas Warren is projected for a 4.30 ERA across 109 innings for 2024. One note here is that the Park Factor for Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is much greater than the Park Factor for Yankee Stadium, which has become a much more pitcher-friendly environment over recent years.
A projection system that was park-neutral for Montas since he was a free agent is the Stuff+ projections, which hold an average ERA of 4.30 for this year and saw Frankie Montas at a 4.26 and Will Warren at a 4.10. One could reasonably assume that Montas and Warren are similar pitchers in terms of volatility as well since Warren is a rookie and Montas is returning from shoulder surgery. Another popular option for the Yankees is Shane Bieber, and for similar reasons as to Montas.
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If the Yankees were to land Shane Bieber, they would add a pitcher to the middle of their rotation who could provide them plenty of upside, and I would welcome it, but what do projections say about their value? Bieber is projected for a 3.92 ERA by Steamer and a 4.11 by Stuff+ projections and also has some injury issues lurking. I would acquire Bieber without a second question, but will the Yankees have an offer that the Guardians are enticed by? Everson Pereira makes plenty of sense for them on the surface, but public and private perceptions of him seem to fluctuate based on team and evaluator.
The same could be said about Oswald Peraza, and the Yankees don’t seem like they would trade either Spencer Jones or Jasson Dominguez for him, nor should they. Cleveland has a surplus of infielders, with both Andres Gimenez and Jose Ramirez locked into multi-year extensions and Bryan Rocchio settling into their shortstop role (for now). Following the trades for Alex Verdugo and Juan Soto, it also wouldn’t make much sense for the team to trade even more pitching, so it seems unlikely that they’d be involved in the starter market.
It just wouldn’t make sense for the team to try and force themselves to fulfill some self-proclaimed prophecy to land players at price points they don’t feel are fair and go against their evaluations. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to get better, but the money they had set aside for Yoshinobu Yamamoto isn’t automatically going to be dispersed into other arms just for the sake of spending the money.
As of right now, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Will Warren is a capable MLB starter, even if that goes against conventional wisdom. He led Triple-A in Stuff+ (124.5) and had both above-average strikeout rates and better-than-average walk rates in the International League, there’s a lot to like in a profile such as his. The ability to create soft contact on the ground and throw pitches with large movement profiles and solid command should make him a strong big leaguer, but they’ll need to back him up with depth.
Is the ‘Super Bullpen’ a Viable Strategy?
One of the most puzzling narratives in baseball is the idea that the ‘bullpen game’ is a sign of a weak pitching staff, especially considering who the Yankees have shared a division with for quite some time. The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball since 2019, and they’ve relied on bullpen games more than any other team in the sport. Bullpen games are effective because they allow teams to utilize different arms and looks that force teams to leave hitters in unfavorable matchups or make substitutions earlier in games than they originally anticipated. What’s important for its success is having a pitching staff deep enough to handle the constant substitutions across those nine innings.
Adding Will Warren to the rotation wouldn’t mean using a bullpen game, but as he goes through the growing pains of a rookie, having a bullpen capable of doing so is a security blanket that could help them a ton. They also desperately need a sixth starter, something they had with both Randy Vasquez and Jhony Brito, but an aspect of their roster they now desperately lacked. One of their biggest strengths entering 2023 was pitching depth, and while most of it crumbled due to injury, without the sheer number of starters at their disposal, they wouldn’t have made it through the 2023 season above .500.
This year, being merely above .500 isn’t good enough, and finding a sixth starter can prove to be challenging. The team could flip one of Peraza or Pereira to another ballclub that may not value them as top-100 prospects but desperately need the depth in their infield or outfield. The San Francisco Giants are a team that is looking for shortstop help on a market that has very little of it, and they could part ways with an arm like Mason Black in return for someone like Oswald Peraza.
Mason Black sported a 3.71 ERA and 4.26 FIP across 29 starts, and while he wasn’t stretched out for a large workload per start, the stuff is pretty solid, and there’s enough reason to believe the sinker-slider arm could become a backend arm. He struck out 27.9% of batters faced in the hard run environment of the Pacific Coast League, where walks and runs were up plenty. Having a 3.86 ERA despite that run environment is pretty impressive although the FIP and xFIP were over 5, and he could be an addition to the Yankees’ pitching depth that gives them young, controllable options in the organization.
In free agency, the Yankees could add a swingman like Sean Manaea, who added a sweeper in midway through the season and limited the amount of home runs allowed as well. He also seems to be working on a splitter this year, and if he can pitch the way he did over the final few months of the season next year, he’d be a highly valuable reliever who can start if the team is in a pinch. He could get a two-year deal at around $12 million a year, and it would leave room to add a reliever like Jordan Hicks as well to secure their pitching depth.
It’s not sexy, but it seems like a route that could keep the Yankees in a position to trade for an impact starting pitcher at the deadline. Regardless of whether we like it or not, the rotation hinges on how well Carlos Rodon pitches in 2024. If he’s an uncompetitive starter, then it doesn’t matter who they acquire, they’ll struggle and have to settle for a Wild Card spot at best. Nestor Cortes is another pitcher who will need to rebound in 2024, and while that’s certainly risky business, it’s a choice the team has to make.
Staying flexible to make bigger moves is important as you enter the deadline, and the Yankees can likely survive the first half with some depth if they get the seasons that they need from Rodon and Cortes anyway. It’s a risky strategy, but this rotation relies on plenty of it already, and this market has quickly become one where the Bronx Bombers might have to get creative to plug some of their pitching holes.