Imagine, if you will, that the Yankees signed Matt Garza. Alternatively, imagine that the Yankees signed Ervin Santana, or Ubaldo Jimenez. Those guys have been considered the three best domestic free-agent starting pitchers, and if the Yankees were to pick up one of them, it would be a major investment and it would be considered a major improvement to a rotation in some need. It would make headlines, and it would cost the Yankees three or four or five guaranteed years at something in the neighborhood of $15 million each. It would be a splash, the latest in what would be a series of offseason splashes for the front office.
The Yankees just recently signed a free agent who was more valuable than each of those guys in 2013. They signed a free agent who was more valuable than each of those guys between 2011-2013, and they signed a free agent who projects to be more valuable than each of those guys in 2014. I’ll grant that what Hiroki Kuroda doesn’t have on his side is age, but what he does have is ability, and for a year and $16 million, he ought to be Hiroki Kuroda again. Which is likely to be under-appreciated, again.
Of course, the situation is different. Garza, Jimenez, Santana — these guys are free to sign anywhere. Kuroda’s up there in years, and consensus was that he would either re-sign with the Yankees or return to Japan. There wasn’t much in the way of consideration that he might find a new big-league ballclub. So in that sense it isn’t the biggest surprise that he’s remaining in New York for at least another season, but the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find a bigger upgrade than going from a rotation without Kuroda to a rotation with him.
He’s 38, and he’ll be 39 in February, which is worryingly old for any player. But people like to say “there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract” because that one year is the most projectable, and with Kuroda there’s no other reason to believe he’s teetering on the edge. He’s an aging pitcher, which is a red flag, generally. But he’s been the exact same pitcher since he broke into the majors in 2008. He’s always posted a strikeout rate just low enough to not be thought of as a strikeout pitcher. He’s always posted an ERA just high enough to not be thought of as an ace. But his stuff’s all there, and his results are all there. His decline down the stretch last season looks like it can be easily explained by simple randomness.
Let’s take a quick glance at xFIP-. The best mark of Kuroda’s career is 85. The worst mark of his career is 92. By ERA-, the best mark of his career is 79, and the worst mark is 93. His OBPs against have bounced between .282 and .300. No matter where you look, it’s all more or less the same, over the years. Kuroda has neither improved nor declined. He’s demonstrated some ability to suppress hits. The last four years, he’s started 128 games, and whatever concern there might’ve been about his transition from Los Angeles to New York has been proven insignificant. He’s adjusted fine. He’s been very quietly terrific.
There’s little that Kuroda does to draw attention to himself. Performance-wise, he’s solid across the board without being amazing at anything, and if we change our opinions of players based on how they change as players, we haven’t changed our Kuroda opinions in half a decade. We know that he’s solid and that’s old hat. He goes about his business while people think about newer pieces, or shinier pieces.
It’s interesting, now, to reflect a little bit on Kuroda’s time in Japan, given how successful he’s been in the States. At 32, in his last year with Hiroshima, he posted his highest ERA in years, and his lowest strikeout rate in years. Also, his highest walk and dinger rates in years. At that point, there was reason for concern that Kuroda might be wearing down, but that obviously hasn’t been the case as he’s been effective and mostly durable. He was well-scouted by the Dodgers, yet I don’t know how many people expected him to still be pitching in the majors in 2014, as an important component of a hopeful contender.
The Yankees say they’re not done looking for pitching help, and as long as they can afford it, they might as well keep looking for upgrades. They’re expected to be in deep on Masahiro Tanaka in the event that he’s actually posted. Brian Cashman says the desire is to add 400 innings behind CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova, with Kuroda accounting for half of that. But while the Yankees want to get better, and while the Yankees have room to get better, they’re already in pretty decent shape as far as the rotation is concerned. According to our current projected WAR, the Yankees’ rotation ranks fourth, between the Rangers and Nationals. Steamer thinks that Sabathia, Nova, and Kuroda will be three of baseball’s 30 most valuable starters or so. Sabathia’s a question mark, but he was terrific as recently as 2012. Nova is coming off a year with an arm problem, but he also solved his dinger issues at the age of 26. It’s a pretty good front, even without an ace, and there’s the additional major wild card in Michael Pineda, who for all I know is back to 100%.
The Yankees’ starting rotation, right now, is a bit underrated. Its most stable, reliable starter is a bit underrated. The move to re-sign him has been a bit underrated. There’s no way that enough people out there properly appreciate Hiroki Kuroda, but thankfully for the Yankees, wins and losses aren’t based on appreciation. For a year and too little money, given his talent, the Yankees should hand the ball to Kuroda 30-odd times and focus their worries on everything else.
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