Tommy Kahnle may be losing nearly two years of his career. The least the New York Yankees could do is extend his contract.
This is not the season Tommy Kahnle wanted.
The jovial right-hander had plenty of reasons to be excited. His New York Yankees entered 2020 as the World Series favorites after signing Gerrit Cole to boost the pitching staff. Kahnle himself was expected to be a key member of the team’s legendary bullpen. After posting a 3.67 ERA last year, further success was expected in the new season.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and baseball shut down for four months. Kahnle made it through summer camp and struck out the side in his lone appearance against the Washington Nationals. Less than a week later, it was reported he had injured his elbow and would likely need Tommy John surgery.
For Kahnle, this could not have come at a worse time. He faces at least a year of recovery time, which means he might not even pitch in 2021 either. To add insult to injury, he turns 31 this week and will be a free agent in 2022. This means he could potentially hit the market as a 32-year-old middle reliever fresh off of major surgery, and will almost certainly take a financial hit.
Given Kahnle’s importance to the team, the Yankees need to do the right thing and immediately provide him with a contract extension.
On the field
From a baseball perspective, Kahnle is no ordinary middle reliever. In fact, when he announced the injury, manager Aaron Boone called him “an elite reliever in the league.”
The numbers certainly support this. Kahnle’s 4.01 ERA in pinstripes may seem high, but that statistic is inflated. Remember, Kahnle missed most of 2018 with elbow trouble and was never himself, posting a 6.56 ERA in just 24 appearances. If we take that season out of the equation, his ERA while with the Yankees shrinks to 3.34.
And what makes Kahnle so great in his role? FanGraphs has his average career fastball velocity at 96.1 miles per hour, but he’s capable of throwing it as fast as 98 miles per hour. Paired with Kahnle’s fastball is an absolutely mind-bending changeup that gives left-handed hitters fits, as it ducks down and in on them.
Naturally, this 1-2 punch of pitches (plus a passable slider) makes Kahnle a reliable strikeout pitcher. He posted a K/9 of 12.91 last year and owns a mark of 12.6 as a Yankee. In 2019, Kahnle ranked 16th among all relievers in K/9.
With that said, unless his UCL tear is bad enough to be potentially career-threatening, Kahnle more than deserves a contract extension from the Bombers.
Off the field
More importantly, the Yankees need to extend Kahnle because he is universally beloved in the clubhouse. He’s constantly cracking jokes, lovably goofing around with teammates, and is just a genuinely good human being. One part Roger Rabbit, one part ALF, and one part phenomenal pitcher, his value to the Yankees isn’t reserved exclusively to when he’s on the pitcher’s mound.
The fact of the matter is Kahnle is this Yankees team’s version of Nick Swisher. The jovial switch-hitting outfielder’s infectious positive energy played a big role as he manned right field on the 2009 World Series team. The famous “Swisher Salute” became a fan favorite, and he even put out an album.
Fans don’t see Kahnle as often as they did Swisher, but he absolutely fills the same role. Just look at him in the above video. He is constantly poking and prodding at teammates. There’s definitely something of an annoying little brother vibe, but it’s obvious he wants everybody to stay loose and have fun even if they’re in work mode.
Plain and simple, Kahnle is the heart and soul of the team. In March, Lindsey Adler of The Athletic wrote of the Yankees’ infamous Madden NFL league, of which Kahnle is the commissioner. Though called a “corrupt commissioner” by some, few realize how great an activity this is in terms of team bonding. When baseball shut down, Kahnle’s love for video games was front and center as his Twitch channel became quite popular.
The man is a team player through and through, and for the Yankees to lose him because of an injury’s poor timing would be a crying shame.
Extension precedent and final thoughts
Fortunately for Kahnle and his many fans, a contract extension from the Yankees isn’t entirely out of the question. Spotrac lists his 2020 salary at $2.65 million, a number that has since shrunk thanks to the abbreviated season and players receiving prorated salaries. Moreover, general manager Brian Cashman isn’t so heartless that he’ll just non-tender Kahnle next year. He’ll be brought back for 2021 even if he’s only expected to be available just in time for the playoffs.
But the Yankees can do better than that. How quickly we forget that while with the ballclub in August 2016, righty starter Nathan Eovaldi went down with an elbow tear. Though he wasn’t pitching in 2017, Eovaldi received a one-year, $2 million deal from the Tampa Bay Rays in free agency. They then picked up an option for 2018 after his recovery went well.
The Yankees should do the exact same thing with Kahnle, except for two things. They should make the second year of the contract guaranteed and backload it accordingly. This is absolutely an acceptable solution. Eovaldi owned a reputation for being streaky and wild when the Rays gave him his deal, whereas Kahnle is a well-established reliever.
The worst-case scenario is the Yankees give Kahnle this extension and he struggles in 2022. That’s fine, since the team could just adjust his role until he’s himself again or just trade what should be a movable deal.
But best-case scenario, Kahnle comes back stronger than ever. He proves, despite his unconventional extension, the risk is always worth the reward. From being an upstate New York native to his natural fit in the clubhouse, the man was simply born to be a Yankee.
Cashman, your move.