CARLSBAD, Calif. — On Monday, while addressing the media here at the general managers’ meetings, Brian Cashman said of 2018 rental J.A. Happ, “Have I talked to John Courtright, his agent? Yes.”
It appears to have been an understandable slip-up. For the Yankees have been negotiating with Happ, but Courtright doesn’t represent him. Instead, Courtright represents free agent Patrick Corbin.
And Corbin, the 29-year-old left-hander, represents the Yankees’ best and most likely hope to upgrade a starting rotation in need of an infusion.
The Yankees have been scanning the industry for free-agent and trade options because that’s what competent teams do. Cashman chatted openly with his Indians counterpart Chris Antonetti this week, and Antonetti’s Indians dominate the American League Central to such an extent that they can contemplate trading one of their pricey starting pitchers — Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber — and still feel confident about winning their division in 2019.
Yet a simple look at the Yankees’ circumstances indicate that a free-agent signing or two makes more sense than trades at this juncture in their cycle. After finally, successfully getting under the luxury-tax threshold this past season, they can spend more liberally at a lower penalty. And while the Yankees feel their farm system remains strong, much of that strength resides at the lower levels following a wave of graduations and trades. Deals for entities like one of the Indians’ arms or the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner most likely would require some help closer to the big leagues.
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And that brings us to Corbin, by nearly all accounts the top free-agent arm. As good fortune would have it for the Yankees, Corbin hails from the Syracuse area and has spoken openly about joining his childhood favorite club.
Due diligence already has been conducted on Corbin, as it has on all of the major free agents, and the Yankees have not been deterred by what they have witnessed or by what they’ve heard. Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey, the Diamondbacks’ pitching coach in 2014 and 2015, has offered a positive endorsement of Corbin, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2014 and didn’t return to major league action until July 2015.
There has to be concern about a pitcher who already has been through TJ and who still relies so heavily on his slider, which he threw 41.3 percent of the time last season. However, it is a killer slider, the most valuable in the entire game with a score of 27.0, as per FanGraphs.
Corbin’s pitching in the National League West provides both pros and cons on his behalf. On the plus side, he succeeded at hitter-friendly Chase Field, compiling a home ERA of 3.47 and a 5.46 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 2018. He pitched respectably in a pair of games at the pitchers’ nightmare that is Coors Field, totaling 10 ²/₃ innings and allowing five runs, and in four starts against the dangerous Dodgers, he allowed one run twice and no runs twice.
While he obviously couldn’t account for the quality of opponents, a skeptic could point out that Corbin benefited from facing the NL West’s dregs often. He pitched against the Padres (13th in the NL in runs scored) three times and the Giants (14th) six times.
Price obviously will be a determinant for the Yankees, yet given their determination to add a high-end starting pitcher to accompany Luis Severino, whose second-half struggles can be attributed primarily to his tipping of pitches, in the team’s estimation, Corbin appears to be an awfully good fit. So much so that his agent’s name was at the tip of Cashman’s tongue.