They Yankees could, if they were so inclined, enter the 2010 season without adding another starting pitcher. After bringing back Andy Pettitte, they have five starting pitchers in him, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes. Since they continue to see Hughes and Chamberlain as starters, they might want to let both of them, entering their age-24 seasons, to start the season in the rotation. Yet both have struggled at times as starters, and the team might want to bring in a veteran to add some competition in Spring Training.
John Lackey sits atop the free agent market, and could be a potential solution. Even in years when he has missed time with injuries, as he has the past few years, he’s still thrown over 160 innings. He’d slot into the rotation behind Burnett, moving Pettitte to four and allowing for a competition between Hughes and Chamberlain for five. By adding Lackey, the Yankees would certainly bolster their rotation. But that doesn’t come without drawbacks.
While he probably won’t get it, Lackey wants more years and dollars than A.J. Burnett. No one gets more than they ask for, so we can expect Lackey’s price to drop, probably right into the Burnett range. That would represent the third long-term pitching contract the Yankees will have handed out in the past two off-seasons. I’m not sure they’re so inclined to do that, especially with a second pitcher who has shown something of an injury streak. And that’s before the payroll implications.
Another path the Yankees could explore is a high-risk starter — someone with a high ceiling but who has battled injury problems over the past few years. These pitchers will not command nearly the years or dollars of Lackey, so if they don’t fulfill their promise in 2010, teams aren’t on the hook for future years and dollars. The 2009-2010 free agent class features a number of these, though their numbers are already dwindling.
At the Winter Meetings on Wednesday, the Texas Rangers signed Rich Harden to a one-year, $7.5 million contract. It will pay him $6.5 million in 2010 with a chance to earn $3.5 million in incentives. The extra million comes as a buyout of a 2011 option of $11 million. Now that the first risky starter has dropped, perhaps the market will become more clear. That could be good for the Yankees, who have contacted Casey Close, agent for Ben Sheets (also, Derek Jeter). Harden’s deal might give them a better idea of what to expect from Sheets contract-wise.
For his part, Sheets doesn’t want to take a paycut from his 2008 salary, which was $12 million. It’s unlikely any team offers Sheets that much money guaranteed, but hey, he won’t get more than he asks for. That $12 million could provide a good basis for an incentive-laden contract, much like Harden’s.
The knock on Sheets is that he missed all of 2009 with a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow. It’s another in a long line of injuries, though he’s really had only one arm injury in the past, a shoulder issue that recurred not long after he returned from it. Even so, he might be less of an injury risk than Harden. Over the past three seasons (and remember, Sheets missed all of the last one), Sheets has pitched 339.2 innings. In that span, Harden threw 314.2 innings.
Chances are, it will take more than the Harden deal to acquire Sheets, but probably not much more. As ESPN’s Keith Law notes, “the year off may do him wonders, as he’s had a lot of non-arm injuries that have limited his workload for the past few years, and he was never terrible when pitching at less than 100 percent.” So how can we take that information, along with Harden’s contract, and make a fair proposal?
I’m sure Brian Cashman is on the case. Signing John Lackey will mean a huge commitment in years and dollars, and trading for Roy Halladay will mean a huge commitment in prospects (plus, possibly years and dollars). Sheets is a shorter-term option who has plenty of upside. More upside, probably, than Harden, if for no other reason than Sheets walks about half the batters Harden does. Would a one-year contract with $8 million guaranteed, plus incentives to push that around $12, $13 million, with a vesting option, work? Here’s to hoping. That would be a value on the free agent contract, and leave the Yanks a bit of flexibility to upgrade left field.