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James Paxton or Masahiro Tanaka? Which Free Agent Pitcher will the Yankees Re-Sign in the Offseason?

Note: If you are unsure about any of the advanced baseball stats, there is a key at the bottom of the article.

The Yankees rotation is nothing without Masahiro Tanaka or James Paxton, yet the Yankees may not retain both of their starters after the 2020 season. Although the Yankees have locked up ace Gerrit Cole for the long haul, the Bombers cannot win with a one-man rotation. Baseball is a team sport, and despite Cole having an ungodly amount of talent, he cannot give the Yankees their 28th World Series title alone. The Yankees need more consistent pitching heading into 2021.

The Yankees currently boast a good but not great rotation. Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Jordan Montgomery, and J.A. Happ make for a rocky quintet. Cole is a top-2 pitcher in all of baseball, Paxton and Tanaka are inconsistent but flash ace-like potential, Montgomery has not pitched in a full season since his rookie 2017 season but can pitch like a middle of the rotation starter, and while Happ had a great 2018 between the Blue Jays and Yankees, he had an awful season in 2019. At their worst, the Yankees rotation is middle-of-the-pack amongst playoff teams, but at their best, they boast one of the better rotations in baseball.  

The expected holdovers heading into the 2021 season will be Cole and Montgomery; however, the Yankees shaky rotation looks a lot worse without Paxton (3.5 fWAR in 2019) or Tanaka (3.3 fWAR in 2019). Happ will be a part of next year’s rotation if he makes ten starts or has 62.0 IP. Conversely, if Happ does not reach either of these thresholds, he will be a free agent.   In that scenario, the Yankees would not re-sign Happ because of his poor 2019 season and few teams would be chasing after a pitcher in his age-38 season. At least they should expect lights out starter Luis Severino to return around the middle of the year from Tommy John surgery. As a result, the Yankees only have a guaranteed 2.5 starters heading into next year.

Even though it is unlikely to happen, from a financial standpoint the Yankees could re-sign Paxton and Tanaka for the 2021 season. If they went that route, they can chug and plug their several in-house options in the rotation for the first-half of the season. The rotation would look a lot better if the duo remained on the Yankees, and the team has the money to sign both to long-term deals. The Evil Empire has $137 million on the books in 2021, and will not be penalized by the luxury tax unless they surpass $210 million in team salary. Keeping in line with the predictions made in my previous Yankee free agent article, the Bombers would have roughly $41 million to spend in the 2021 offseason–more than enough to re-sign both Paxton and Tanaka.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would be wise not to lock up both starters for years to come. Paxton and Tanaka are both searching for multi-year deals, but the Yankees will have enough pitching to make up for one of them departing in free agency. This is because the Yankees already have Cole as a Yankee through 2024 (or until 2028 if Cole decides not to use his opt-out), Severino through 2022, and Montgomery until 2024. Considering the talent in the Yankees farm system, the Yankees have a lot of talent ready to battle for the rotation in the future. 

 Pitching prospects such as Michael King, Delvi Garcia, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Clarke Schmidt can make a decent impact in the 2020 season, but can see themselves in more high-profile roles in 2021. 18-game winner Domingo German can also join the Yankees rotation again in 2021, as he is currently serving a 81-game domestic violence suspension. One way or another, these pitchers can find themselves in more important roles next season.

Furthermore, starters such as Albert Abreu, Luis Gil, Miguel Yajure, Nick Nelson, and Brooks Kriske can be called up in 2021, but can truly fight for a starting rotation spot in 2022. All of these young pitchers are extremely talented, so if Tanaka and Paxton both signed long-term deals, their young and affordable prospects would miss opportunities to start in the rotation. Thus, the Yankees should sign Tanaka or Paxton to a multi-year deal, but not both.

Whether or not Happ is in the rotation next year, the Yankees are likely to sign either Paxton or Tanaka to a long-term deal. Tanaka has been on the Yankees since 2014 and is their longest tenured starter. While Tanaka has been inconsistent during the regular season, he has excelled in the postseason. Since the Yankees have boasted several World Series capable teams in recent years, Tanaka could help them win their 28th championship. Meanwhile, Paxton is a strikeout machine (11.11 K/9 in 2019), and won ten straight games in the second half last season.

Because of his strikeout numbers and success in the past three seasons, Paxton is a better pitcher than Tanaka. The Yankees should sign Paxton over Tanaka, especially because Paxton is on the upswing of his career (11.6 fWAR from 2017-19), and has posted an ERA and FIP under 4.00 for the past four seasons. Tanaka, on the other hand, has a 8.3 fWAR from 2017-19, but has posted a 4.74 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 2017, while pitching to a 4.45 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 2019.

Despite all the evidence suggesting Paxton is a better pitcher, I predict the Yankees will re-sign Tanaka over Paxton. Paxton will likely end up with a better career than his counterpart, but the Yankees will re-sign Tanaka because of his legacy in New York. Tanaka has always been a fan favorite, and for good reason too. Tanaka is just one of six Yankee pitchers to throw at least 1,000 innings only in Pinstripes. He also sports a 1.32 ERA, the second best postseason ERA in Yankee history (minimum 40.0 IP) to Mariano Rivera’s ridiculous 0.70 ERA in the playoffs.

The Yankees cannot go wrong with either choice, but in all likelihood the Yankees will make the tough decision to let Paxton go in the offseason. Subsequently, Tanaka will sign around a three-year, $48 million contract with the Yankees during this offseason. Hopefully, in the long run, the Yankees will have made the right decision to keep Tanaka in New York. 


fWAR: Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. If a player has 0.1 fWAR they are worth 0.1 wins more than a replacement level player (0.0 fWAR). An average starting player that plays most of the season usually has an fWAR of 2.0. 

IP: Innings Pitched.

K/9: Average number of strikeouts in a nine-inning game. MLB average: 7.92 K/9.

ERA: Earned Run Average. MLB average: 4.49 ERA.

FIP: Fielding Independent of Pitching. This stat is essentially a version of ERA that is more focused on what the pitcher can control (Walks, Home Runs, Strikeouts, Hit Batsmen). MLB average: ~4.50 FIP.


Follow Adam Cohen on Twitter @adamcohenajc for all updates on his baseball related content.

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