The Yankees should look at these 3 starters to bolster pitching depth

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest issues the Yankees have on their roster pertains to pitching depth, and while the team is heavily interested in bringing in RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, they’ll need some added insurance as well. Both Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon are returning from injuries that not only limited them to under 100 innings each but also saw them rendered largely ineffective on the mound. Clarke Schmidt, who still has to prove himself as a reliable MLB starter, was the only pitcher outside of Gerri Cole last season to log at least 150 innings.

Trading Michael King alongside swingmen like Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez certainly hurts their pitching depth, but the Yankees could look at these three free agents to help add affordable depth that doesn’t preclude them from signing an arm like Yamamoto.

Adding a Left-Handed Swing-Man To the Pitching Staff

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

Matt Blake discussed in a recent interview how he felt as if the future of pitching would include more swingmen arms like Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez, who could be a starter one day and a multi-inning reliever the next. Sean Manaea spent his season in San Francisco, filling out multiple roles throughout the season. While he finished with a 4.44 ERA (105 ERA-), he got significantly better following the addition of a sweeping slider. He began throwing one against the Pirates on May 30th, and from that point forward, it became his second-most used pitch (15.4%).

Sean Manaea throws a lot of four-seam fastballs (56.4%) and saw a spike in velocity to 93.6 MPH, allowing it to play better up in the zone. His 7.2 feet of extension lets his fastball play up to 95.2 MPH of perceived velocity, and while he doesn’t get much carry on his fastball, the lower slot release allows it to be a swing-and-miss pitch at the top of the zone. His fastball generated +6 Run-Value this past season, the best his fastball had performed in the metric since 2019 after years of seeing it give up damage contact consistently.

His changeup has been his bread-and-butter pitch for years, but in 2022, it had a -10 Run-Value as it got hammered for a .529 SLG%. The increase in velocity to his repertoire seemed to strengthen his changeup as well, as it generated +4 Run-Value and a mere .275 wOBA, generating soft contact and keeping right-handed hitters off balance, but the biggest development he made this season came with his sweeper. His ERA following his debut of the pitch was 3.60 (86 ERA-), and his HR/9 plummeted to just 0.64.

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Adding a sweeper gave him a reliable pitch for strikeouts, replacing the slider he had previously that had a .387 wOBA allowed and improving his arsenal dramatically. Manaea could be a multi-purpose arm as he was with the Giants, making outings ranging from just facing three batters to facing 27 based on what the team needed. This utility could greatly benefit the Yankees, even if they sign Yamamoto, as in Japan, they use six-man rotations instead of five, so there is an adjustment period.

Durability is another aspect of what makes Manaea so enticing is his health, as he hasn’t been on the IL since 2019, and that’s a rarity given the influx of injuries over the last few seasons. He’s a reliable arm who the Yankees can slot into their rotation when needed and keep in the bullpen when the staff is fully healthy. FanGraphs expects Sean Manaea to get a two-year $24 million deal on this market, and while that could be much for the Yankees if they’re going all-in for 2024, this could be seen as a movable contract following the season.

The Yankees are going to need somebody to help them make starts or just deepen their bullpen and give them multiple innings, and Manaea seems like the premier option for this. Some teams might sign him as a full-time starter for a slightly higher price, so this feels like a far-fetched idea, but it’s certainly one worth exploring.

Sweeper-Heavy Righty Could Be the Perfect Multi-Inning Reliever

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Atlanta Braves
Aug 20, 2023; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Jakob Junis (34) pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Junis‘ tenure with the San Francisco Giants has been defined by innovative practices that have created a unique and versatile arm who throws primarily sliders. This past season, the 31-year-old right-hander posted a 3.87 ERA and a 3.74 FIP, striking out 26.2% of batters faced. He tossed 86 innings in 40 games, making four starts and having 12 different outings where he completed at least three innings. Junis could be the perfect replacement for Jhony Brito, and unlike Manaea, who could come at a price tag north of $10 million a season, he would likely be an extremely inexpensive arm.

His sweeping slider is his primary pitch, which was used a whopping 62.5% of the time to great success, as he had a .271 wOBA and 32.5% whiff rate on the pitch. With a 128 Stuff+, it’s an excellent pitch, and it makes up for a sinker that produced poor results for him in 2023, but he developed a second offering that better improved his performance against left-handed hitters. In his career, lefties have a .825 OPS against Junis, but that number improved significantly over the final two months of the season when he introduced a higher dosage of changeups.

From July 31st onward, the right-hander used his changeup 21.1% of the time and posted a 2.12 ERA and 2.28 FIP across 29.2 innings, with much-improved numbers against left-handers. A .574 OPS from left-handed hitters is a massive improvement on the previously mentioned career number, and this could further allow June to pitch deeper into games and avoid damage contact. If the Yankees can add him to their backend of the bullpen, they can likely get a reliever who can also give them length or spot starts, similar to Brito and Vasquez, who are now in San Diego.

Junis is likely an arm who the Yankees can sign to a multi-year deal under $10 million a year, perhaps to a contract comparable to the one given to Erick Fedde of the White Sox. A two-year deal at $15 million would make a lot of sense, and while that could be considered pricey for a reliever, Junis’ value is a step up from that due to his ability to work three or four innings in a pinch and provide closer to 100 innings in a season versus he 50-60 you typically get from a reliever.

Another pitcher that spent last season with the Giants, he’s the “underwhelming” signing that some fans would dismiss but would greatly improve the floor of the Yankees’ pitching staff and barely affect the payroll. Similar to Manaea, he would also be a movable contract if they needed to, and this wouldn’t be a move that prevents the team from adding Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Personally, in terms of cost and production, I believe that Jakob Junis would make the most sense for the Yankees.

You’d be concerned about how a pitcher at Oracle Park adjusts to the AL East, but his wOBA on the road has been lower than his wOBA at home during the two years he spent with the Giants. For about seven million a year, you’re getting a pitcher who could give the team north of 80 innings in 2024, and while he did end the season on the IL, it was a minor back issue. An unconventional pitcher, Junis fits the swingman role perfectly, and he would likely be a low-cost option.

The Yankees Could Try a Potential Reunion

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals
Sep 30, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Frankie Montas (47) during the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most likely outcome on this list is Frankie Montas, a pitcher the Yankees have had interest in for a while, and when they acquired him, they hoped he’d be an impact arm who could slot in at the top of their rotation. Instead, injuries would derail his tenure with the Bronx Bombers, and as the team looks to bolster its pitching depth, the 30-year-old right-hander could be a low-cost option that fills out the backend of their rotation. A big question here pertains to whether this would cause the team not to sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto, which seems like it wouldn’t be the case.

Montas only pitched 1.1 innings last season. Expecting him to make 30 starts the year after would be unrealistic, and given the spotty track records of Rodon and Cortes health-wise, this would be an insurance option of value. Furthermore, while Clarke Schmidt made 30 starts this past season, injuries have consistently bugged him throughout his professional career, so there would certainly be room for him in the rotation even with a potential frontline starter added to the roster.

Projections believe that Montas could provide plenty of value to a pitching staff with a 4.07 ERA across 137 innings, which would certainly be an upgrade at the fifth spot in the rotation. He and Schmidt could both potentially handle long-relief duties as well, and the upside is certainly there for Frankie Montas to become a frontline starter again. His movement profiles display an arsenal that’s truly dominant, with two plus fastballs, a good breaking ball, a solid cutter, and an excellent splitter.

There’s a lot to like in what Frankie Montas could be, and while that comes with more injury risk than guys like Manaea or Junis on this list, it also comes with the shortest commitment. Similarly to Luis Severino, it’s expected that he’ll sign a one-year deal with incentives, and I could see a $10 million offer getting this done. It’ll allow for Montas to hit the free agent market after 2024 with value rebuilt, and there’s a lot of optimism that the Yankees still hold an interest in bringing him back.

He wasn’t rehabbing with the Triple-A team for a late-season debut just for the fun of it, and Brian Cashman even mentioned in his November tirade that Montas is going to ‘shove’ wherever he ends up going. Jack Curry of YES Network even proposed the idea of the Yankees offering an incentive-heavy contract, and while they’re tied up in their pursuit of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, I’d imagine that bringing Montas in would be heavily considered regardless of whether they win the sweepstakes or not for the talented international ace.

It feels like, out of all the options, a Frankie Montas reunion is the one player we’ve seen the most buzz around for the Yankees, but we’ll have to wait and see. Each of the three options could provide value in 2024, although it remains to be seen if the Yankees will be all that interested if they’re able to complete the YamaSoto offseason.