The Yankees took the no-brainer approach to improving their pitching staff, making an undisclosed but reportedly huge offer to C.C. Sabathia. But on the heels of that offer, Hank Steinbrenner confirmed that New York is preparing bids for both A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe, with the idea that adding both would provide the security missing from the starting rotation in 2008.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, while Sabathia represents the addition of a workhorse pitcher likely in his prime, both Burnett and Lowe are far less certain. In fact, the risk of adding both could have negative ramifications, not just for 2009, but for years to come. Not only are Burnett and Lowe far from sure things, their signing will block better short and long-term moves the team could make.
A rotation with both would likely put Sabathia at the top, Joba Chamberlain at number two, Lowe third, Burnett fourth, and Chien-Ming Wang in the fifth spot. If everyone stays healthy and effective, that should be the best rotation in baseball.
But Burnett has not been a particularly sound bet to stay healthy. He pitched 221 1/3 innings in 2008, but just 165 2/3 in 2007, and 135 2/3 in 2006. His 135 2/3 innings came after the last season in which he pitched more than 200 innings; the only other time he passed 200 innings, he followed with 23 innings the next season.
And Burnett will likely command a four-year deal at more than $12 million annually in the pitching-starved marketplace, meaning that the Yankees would be on the hook for a massive contract until at least 2012.
Lowe is a better bet to stay healthy based on his track record, pitching 199 1/3 innings or more in each of the past four seasons. However, those were his age 32-35 seasons. The Yankees would likely need to sign Lowe to a four-year deal for similar money to Burnett, meaning they’d get his age 36-39 seasons.
The combination of Lowe’s age and his relatively low strikeout rate (just 6.2 per nine innings in 2008) bode poorly for his long-term success as a frontline starter. Of his ten most comparable pitchers through age 35 at baseball-reference.com, nearly all of them were out of baseball before age 39.
So while neither Burnett or Lowe are great bets over the life of their contracts, locking in both will also keep the Yankees from providing opportunities to the young pitchers they staked much of their 2008 success on: Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy.
Hughes, who is pitching extremely well in the Arizona Fall League, is still one of the best prospects in baseball. Kennedy, who struggled at the major league level but dominated at AAA, also has a bright future. Neither pitcher has anything to prove at AAA, and would likely be trade bait.
And it isn’t as if the Yankees don’t have alternative options to blocking Kennedy and Hughes for years to come. If instead of Burnett and Lowe, the Yankees simply retained Andy Pettitte on a one-year deal (or Mike Mussina should he decide not to retire), Kennedy and Hughes could battle for the open spot in the rotation, with the loser ready to step in should the winner falter. Mexican import Alfredo Aceves could also be an option.
New York could also take the money they would spend on pitching, and instead turn to improving the offense. With the loss of Jason Giambi, the Yankees have an opening at first base. Recently acquired Nick Swisher is an adequate stopgap, but the free agent Mark Teixeira, 28, would provide an in-prime superstar for the money it would cost to bring in Lowe and Burnett.
Teixeira is an offensive upgrade, a terrific defender, and nearly all of his best comparables were productive well into their thirties. (His top comp, Carlos Delgado, just came off a superb age-36 season.)
No baseball move is a sure thing—but the smartest teams give themselves the best possible chance of long-term success by playing the percentages. And the Yankees, should they sign Lowe and Burnett, will be forsaking their best bets for both 2009 and beyond.