The New York Yankees have added another recognizable name to their rotation. On Sunday, . Taillon joins former Pirates teammate Gerrit Cole and two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber in New York's new-look rotation. Taillon, 29, is currently rehabbing from his second career Tommy John surgery.
He has not pitched in an MLB game since May 2019 but is expected to be ready for spring training and Opening Day. Given Taillon's injury history -- the second Tommy John typically carries much more risk than the first -- the Yankees figure to ease him back into action early in 2022.
Kluber and Taillon give the Yankees two pitchers with pedigree and upside who have not spent much time on a big-league mound the last two years. What do these additions mean for the Yankees? Let's break it all down.
Fantasy Baseball Today
Your Cheat Code To Fantasy Baseball
You're destined to gain an edge over your friends with advice from the award-winning FBT crew.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Doubling down on risk
In Kluber and Taillon, the Yankees added two pitchers who combined to throw one inning in 2020 and 74 innings from 2019-20. Taillon is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Kluber has been sidelined with injuries that range from bad luck (line drive broke his forearm) to annoying (abdominal strain) to worrisome (Grade II shoulder strain).
Kluber and Taillon carry obvious risk given their recent injuries, and they aren't the only pitchers in the rotation with risk. New York's incumbent starters other than Cole also come with questions. Consider:
- RHP Domingo German: Served a domestic violence suspension in 2020 (and had a 7.16 ERA in winter ball this year).
- LHP Jordan Montgomery: Had a 5.11 ERA in 2020 and has thrown 48 innings since Tommy John surgery in 2018.
- RHP Luis Severino: Had Tommy John surgery in Feb. 2020 and is not expected back until midseason 2021.
- RHP Deivi Garcia and RHP Clarke Schmidt: Talented but they will have workload restrictions in 2021.
When you look at that rotation, the natural inclination would be to go after a durable pitcher(s) who is a good bet to give you innings in 2021. Free agents like Jon Lester and Jose Quintana would have fit that bill, ditto trade candidate Lance Lynn. All three wound up with other clubs even though their innings-munching ability would've served the Yankees well.
Rather than go for sure-thing innings, the Yankees targeted upside this offseason. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young winner who threw 215 innings with a 2.89 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 2018. That same year Taillon, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, threw 191 innings with a 3.20 ERA and a 3.89 K/BB. Kluber and Taillon were impact pitchers the last time they were healthy.
The Yankees rolled the dice on Kluber and Taillon because they had more insight into their injury rehab than most teams. Kluber trains (and did his rehab work) at Cressey Sports Performance in Florida. The owner, Eric Cressey, joined the Yankees last year and oversees their strength and conditioning department. He oversaw Kluber's rehab and vouched for his health.
As for Taillon, his Tommy John surgery rehab is going well. He faced hitters in simulated games last September and is not shy about posting working videos on social media. A little more than a week ago Taillon shared video of his latest bullpen session:
By all accounts Taillon's rehab work is going well. This is not a Cressey/Kluber situation, however, where the Yankees had access to the person overseeing Taillon's rehab. Show trade interest in Taillon and the best you could do is review his medicals and take the Pirates' word that everything is on track. You trust the Pirates to act in good faith, but you never really know, you know?
In this case though, the Yankees had access to one of Taillon's closest friends: Cole. The two were teammates from 2016-17 and they're said to be very close -- Cole told KDKA that he and Taillon lived together in the minors and are "best friends" -- so of course the Yankees consulted with Cole before making the trade, and he endorsed the move.
A compelling factor for the Yankees in their push to trade for Jameson Taillon is his $2.25m salary, which keeps them under the CBT threshold. And they are working off strong reviews from Gerrit Cole, a former teammate in PIT who has strongly endorsed the concept.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 24, 2021
That's not the same as employing the person overseeing his rehab, but it's hard to imagine anyone outside the Pirates' organization was as clued in on Taillon's rehab as Cole. Players are consulted about transactions involving former teammates all the time (teams ask whether a guy will fit into clubhouse, etc.), and, in this case, the Yankees used Cole to gain insight into Taillon's rehab.
Cressey and Cole vouching for Kluber and Taillon does not guarantee they will stay healthy in 2021. It does eliminate some of the mystery, however. It's valuable information. The Yankees committed $11 million to Kluber and traded four prospects for Taillon. Those are significant investments, and the Yankees wouldn't have made either without feeling very good about their rehab work.
Rather than target pitchers who can more reliably provide innings but may not offer as much upside, the Yankees doubled down on risk this offseason and went after pitchers who can have a real impact. When healthy, Kluber and Taillon are excellent. The same goes for Severino. If things don't work out, the Yankees are in real trouble. But, if it does work, the rotation could be spectacular.
In all likelihood the Kluber and Taillon additions spell the end of Masahiro Tanaka's time with the Yankees. New York signed Tanaka to a seven-year contract worth $155 million almost exactly seven years ago, and in seven seasons in pinstripes, he threw 1,054 1/3 innings with a 114 ERA+. From 2014-20, Tanaka ranked 24th among all pitchers with 17.6 WAR. It was money well spent.
Kluber and Taillon (and DJ LeMahieu) leave the Yankees with about $4 million in breathing room under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold and staying under the threshold is reportedly a goal in 2021. That $4 million a) won't be enough to re-sign Tanaka, who SNY's Andy Martino reports is seeking one year at $15 million or so, and b) has to be set aside for in-season call-ups.
There are baseball reasons to part ways with Tanaka, who turned 32 earlier this offseason. He's been pitching with a partial tear in his ulnar collateral elbow ligament since 2014, and while it's given him no problems since, it remains in the back of everyone's mind. Also, Tanaka has had trouble with his trademark splitter the last two years, and opponents have hit it hard:
That Tanaka has been a tick better than league average the last two years (104 ERA+) without his splitter is a testament to his command, his slider, and his pitching know-how. Still, a pitcher losing his best pitch is worrisome, and this is a two-year problem now. If it were isolated to the bizarre 2020 season, it would be easy to look the other way. This started in 2019 though.
Tanaka has passed every "can he handle New York?" test you could throw at a player, and he's been a steady source of innings the last five years. The Yankees could use an innings guy and they know Tanaka better than any team, and yet they seem to be moving on. That's a red flag, no? Their evaluation could be completely wrong, but it would give me pause if I were another club.
The Yankees could still bring Tanaka back, of course, but one of three things would need to happen to make it work:
- Tanaka takes an enormous discount to fit under the luxury-tax threshold.
- The Yankees shift gears and decide to exceed the luxury-tax threshold.
- The Yankees trade someone to clear money to fit Tanaka (Adam Ottavino?).
I'm not sure any of that is likely now. I don't get the sense Tanaka wants to bounce from MLB team to MLB team at this point of his career, but that doesn't mean he's willing to take a huge discount either. Spending over the threshold now after passing up other opportunities earlier this offseason (Francisco Lindor?) would be a surprise, and good luck shedding salary in a trade.
New York's actions are that of a team that has decided to move on from Tanaka despite their rotation needs and despite the seven strong seasons he gave them. Re-signing Tanaka would have been the safest move, and instead the Yankees went after Kluber and Taillon, who carry injury concerns but also possession greater upside. Tanaka and Kluber/Taillon are almost polar opposites.
There are rumblings Tanaka could return to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, his former team in Japan, and I'm sure other MLB teams will have interest in him. The Angels, Blue Jays, and Phillies stand out as possible suitors. For weeks a reunion between Tanaka and the Yankees seemed sensible and inevitable. Now a reunion would qualify as a surprise.
Where do the kids fit?
In Garcia and Schmidt, the Yankees have two top-100 caliber prospects poised to assume larger roles in 2021. Both made their MLB debut last season (Garcia even started ALDS Game 2 as an opener) and impressed. Garcia had four quality starts in six tries and Schmidt posted insane spin rates on his breaking ball. We're talking 3,100-plus rpm. That's as good as it gets.
As recently as three weeks ago Garcia and Schmidt were penciled into the Opening Day rotation. Now it's possible neither will begin the season in the big leagues. Cole is the undisputed ace, Kluber and Taillon would ideally slot in behind him, Montgomery is the clear-cut No. 4 starter, and German is a candidate for the No. 5 spot. He had a 111 ERA+ in 143 innings in 2019.
Pushing Garcia and Schmidt down the depth chart helps the Yankees in several ways. For starters, they've improved their depth, and pitching depth is always vital. That will be especially true in 2021 as everyone builds back up following the truncated 2020 season. And with the pandemic is still ongoing, teams will need their No. 6 and No. 7 starters as much as ever.
Secondly, Garcia and Schmidt are going to have workload restrictions in 2021. I don't know what the magic numbers are, but Garcia has never thrown more than 111 1/3 innings in a season. Schmidt has not thrown more than 90 2/3 innings in a season since having Tommy John surgery in 2017. Bringing them along slowly in Triple-A is preferable to doing it in MLB games that count.
At the same time, there is still an obvious path to Garcia and Schmidt spending time in the Bronx in 2021. Kluber and Taillon are injury risks and Severino is not expected back until midseason. Also, the Yankees figure to use the occasional sixth starter to give everyone rest after the abbreviated 2020 season. This is uncharted territory and every team will be cautious.
Kluber and Taillon push Garcia and Schmidt down the depth chart but not out of the picture. Talent reigns supreme, and if at some point the Yankees determine they are their best options to win ballgames, they'll use them. Kluber and Taillon just mean Garcia and Schmidt are no longer Plan A. They're Plan B, and that's the best place for young pitchers to be on the depth chart.