While people’s attention turns toward the trade market for rotation upgrades, the best option for the New York Yankees is Justus Sheffield.
The first half of the New York Yankees 2018 season was nothing short of a success.
Thanks to a major league-record-setting 161 home runs before the All-Star break and major league-leading slugging percentage of .465, New York has slugged their way to their best first-half record (62-33) since 1998.
Despite this, they still trail the Boston Red Sox by 4.5 games in the American League East race. With the second half set to get started on Friday night, the Yankees will also look to pull ahead in the divisional race by improving their starting rotation.
Jordan Montgomery’s promising sophomore season was derailed as he underwent Tommy John surgery. Masahiro Tanaka spent time on the disabled list as well and hasn’t been pretty when healthy, as he’s surrendering 1.9 home runs per nine innings — the worst rate of the right-hander’s career. Notwithstanding a handful of promising starts, Sonny Gray’s struggles in the Bronx make last year’s deadline trade regrettable.
Youngsters Domingo German and Jonathan Loáisiga have made commendable contributions to the struggling back-end of the Yankees’ rotation, but it’s still an area Brian Cashman must improve to rival the well-oiled machine that is the Red Sox.
The price of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and other big impact arms will be sky-high, if they are any even available ahead of July 31’s non-waiver trade deadline. And trading for arms like J.A. Happ, Matt Harvey, and Cole Hamels won’t necessarily guarantee an upgrade.
Happ owns a 6.84 ERA over his last five starts, Hamels has had his fair share of trouble (especially at home this season), and Harvey has revived himself in a low-key environment with the Reds. Sticking him back under the bright lights of New York in a pennant race could bring him back to the status he held in his last few weeks with the Mets: a former ace.
The best option is one that can not only give the Yankees’ rotation a boost in 2018 but has the potential to do so for years to come. No, he’s not a top-tier name on the pitching market that will require an arm and a leg to bring to the Bronx.
His name is 22-year-old Justus Sheffield. New York’s top pitching prospect.
In 15 appearances this season (14 starts) between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the left-hander owns a 2.49 ERA and 88 strikeouts over 79.1 innings pitched. Sheffield’s 10.1 strikeout rate and minuscule home run rate 0.3 helped him earn an appearance in the 2018 SiriusXM Futures Game during the All-Star break — getting a chance to shine on the national stage.
Sheffield, who was acquired with Clint Frazier from the Cleveland Indians as part of the July 2016 Andrew Miller trade, was also just ranked 12th on Keith Law’s midseason top 50 prospects list.
Listed at 6-foot and 200 pounds, Sheffield is still able to create a downhill plane and is able to generate a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and complements it with a plus slider. The Yankees are so high on him that Cashman tabbed him as an “untouchable” in the Manny Machado sweepstakes. Given Sheffield’s potential as a future No. 2 starter and the quick rise to stardom by many of his fellow Baby Bombers, perhaps it’s for the best. Especially if he could make an impact as soon as 2018.
A couple of areas that Sheffield needs to improve on is his control and third pitch development. In 2018, he’s walking four batters per nine innings — his worst minor league career walk rate. His changeup also needs some work, as he’s currently a starter who relies heavily on his fastball/slider mix to generate swings and misses.
In the minor leagues, that’ll get batters out. Even at an elite pace if your stuff is good. However, an improved changeup will elevate Sheffield’s game to where he can be effective in the majors. Without it, he may experience some 2016 Severino-esque problems.
Speaking of the Severino comparison, even he shined when it mattered the most during his first call-up. In 2015, New York promoted their then-top prospect on July 31. He went on to post a 2.89 ERA over 11 starts and help the Yankees make the postseason with a Wild Card spot.
Unlike Severino, Sheffield does have more to prove in the minors. Like the aforementioned control issue and changeup skepticism. But he has all the tools necessary for a long career in a major league rotation.
Sheffield earning the call sooner rather than later is the way to go for the Yankees. The mixture of his undeniable talent and the lack of strong options both on the current roster and via trade make it a crucial move to make for the Yankees.