The ownership and front office of the Yankees should regret the decision to pass on Dallas Keuchel. They should regret it the same way they should regret not trading for Justin Verlander by the September 1 deadline in 2017 only to have him single-handedly beat them in the ALCS, and the same way they should regret cutting payroll by $50 million the season after they came within one win of the World Series. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Yankees regret either of those decisions, and I don’t think they will regret this one either.
After the egregious mistakes of Verlander in 2017 and the drastic decrease in payroll in 2018, the Yankees reset their luxury-tax number for the most impressive free-agent class in history. While the disappointing endings to the previous two seasons stung, the Yankees were about to enter the first real season in their current window of opportunity to win a championship and they had set themselves up perfectly to potentially build a dynastic roster. The Yankees were expected to combine their inexpensive core of position players of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar with one and possibly two 26-year-old generational superstars and give their rotation a boost with a 29-year-old, left-handed strikeout machine. But they didn’t. They passed on all three, settling on much more cost effective options and once again creating a super bullpen, a bullpen they failed to utilize properly in the postseason, the time of the year they built it solely for.
Hal Steinbrenner cited the future need to pay the Yankees’ homegrown core as the reason for not signing any of the Top 3 free agents and his excuse was full of holes. If the Yankees weren’t willing to sign the 26-year-old Bryce Harper or 26-year-old Manny Machado or 29-year-old Patrick Corbin, why would they suddenly be OK with signing Judge, Sanchez, Torres or Andujar at older ages? If the Yankees didn’t want to give out long-term contracts for players into their mid-30s, then how were they going to give any members of their core long-term contracts?
It’s become nearly impossible to believe Hal’s “championship goal” sales pitch because he’s done nothing to prove he’s doing everything to achieve that goal. Are fans supposed to believe the organization’s disastrous Brian McCann-Jacoby Ellsbury-Carlos Beltran offseason more than five years ago was their way of showing they care rather than just a failed attempt to recreate the CC Sabathia-A.J. Burnett-Mark Teixeira offseason which led to a championship? Are fans supposed to think acquiring Giancarlo Stanton was the same as going all out in this past free-agent class when Stanton was essentially handed to the Yankees and his salary was offset by the subtraction of Starlin Castro, the trade of Chase Headley and the Marlins picking up some his tab? The Yankees are making more money than ever before and somehow their payroll isn’t higher than ever before and somehow they aren’t chasing players who will only cost money. Hal has been a broken record when it comes to preaching player development and building a team from within with a strong farm system, yet here he is, failing to go after players who will only cost money and won’t dismantle the team’s farm system.
I understand the Yankees’ decision to pass on Dallas Keuchel during the offseason. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and every important metric to the left-handed groundball pitcher is trending down. It didn’t make sense to give the 31-year-old a multi-year deal when he’s pitching more like a 38-year-old, and when you couple his declining performance and big-money demands with his attachment to a first-round draft pick, he never made sense for the Yankees with the way they currently operate.
But everything changed when Keuchel went unsigned past the draft. He was no longer attached to a first-round pick and he was willing to except a prorated version of the qualifying offer he turned down from the Astros for the rest of the season. The Yankees could get Keuchel as a four-month rental and solidify their rotation with a durable, left-handed arm, and all it would cost them is cash. Somehow, they passed again.
The Yankees have played 61 games. Their starters have pitched six innings in 23 of them and have provided 21 quality starts. That’s not bad, that’s atrocious. The disappointing starting pitching has led to the super bullpen being overused, and as the Yankees’ biggest strength, the super bullpen isn’t going to be so super come October if it keeps needing to get 12-plus outs per night. Keuchel might not be what he was as the AL Cy Young winner in 2015 (20-8, 2.48 ERA) or as an All-Star in 2017 (14-5, 2.90 ERA). The Yankees only needed him to be what he was in 2018 (12-11, 3.74 ERA) and they might not have even needed that kind of performance. They need quality innings and length from durable, experience starting pitcher and Keuchel is exactly that.
Now the Yankees will have to hold off the Rays for 101 games with the injury-prone histories of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and CC Sabathia, the innings limit of Domingo German and the inconsistent performance of J.A. Happ. Maybe they will get Luis Severino back at some point this season and he will be his usual ace self, but counting on the face of the Yankees’ current and future rotation following shoulder and lat injuries is a major risk. If any of the current five members of the rotation should get injured or need to miss a start, which is a certainty, considering Sabathia’s knee-related missed starts are planned, the options are using an “opener” combination of Chad Green, Nestor Cortes, Luis Cessa and David Hale or getting spot starts from Chance Adams or possibly Jonathan Loaisiga if he gets healthy. The Yankees have no starting pitching depth, though not many teams do, and they had a chance to acquire depth for only money: the thing they make more of than any other team.
The Yankees will likely address their starting pitching need between now and the July 31 trade deadline, but it’s going to come at the cost of a trade. They won’t be able to fix their problem with their bank account, they will have to further dismantle their farm system, which has taken a big hit over the last two years with trades for players and pitchers like David Robertson, Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle, Sonny Gray, Brandon Drury and Zack Britton. The Yankees might be able to land a pitcher with better abilities than Keuchel, but chances are they are going to land someone with equal or lesser ability at a much greater price.
The Replacement Yankees did their part in April for keeping the team afloat until some of the regulars could return. The Yankees kept it going in May by climbing past the Rays for first place in the East and proving to ownership and the front office how good this team could be once Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Severino and Dellin Betances return. The players have lived up to their end of the bargain by proving their worth as a World Series contender in need of a starting pitcher to avoid the wild-card game for the fourth time in five years. Ownership failed them again by passing on Keuchel. The players should be used to it by now. The fans certainly are.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!