As you might have heard, the Yankees made a big splash early this offseason by trading for Juan Soto. It was one of the most impactful moves of the entire winter, and they struck quickly. Then, they went into hibernation. Their next major move didn’t come until yesterday, when they signed Marcus Stroman to a two-year deal worth $37 million, as Joel Sherman first reported.
As second acts go, it’s surely not what Yankees fans were hoping for. New York was linked to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and several other interesting pitchers were at least briefly connected to the team as well. But while Stroman is hardly the most exciting signing of the offseason, I think he’ll be an important cog in the team’s 2024 quest to get back to the playoffs, and that makes for a great fit in my opinion.
Let’s get something out of the way first: ZiPS doesn’t agree with me on this one. It thinks that Stroman is going to be a decidedly unexciting rotation option for the next two years:
ZiPS Projections – Marcus Stroman
In a word, yikes. That’s a desultory projection, the kind of starter that you’d be unhappy turning to in a playoff game. As you can see, the model would only have offered him about $25 million for the next two years rather than $37 million. But I’m not quite buying it, so let’s talk about why.
The key reason I’m higher on Stroman than those estimates is his track record. I’m not saying he’s an elite option; in fact, he cratered down the stretch last year, to the tune of an 8.63 ERA over 24 innings. He missed a ton of time due to injury, which is how he ended up with only 24 innings after 112 in the first half, and his last four appearances featured his lowest fastball velocities of the season. Before getting injured, he got shelled in three straight games to the tune of 18 runs in 10 innings. If you’re looking for a trajectory-based estimate, that’s a grim sign.
How much of that comes down to Stroman being injured? We’ll never know, of course. But before that disastrous end to the season, he was having one of his better years; a 2.96 first-half ERA with the 3.38 FIP that would have been his best full-season mark since his 2014 debut. Even with that late-season nosedive, he finished the year with a 3.95 ERA across 136 innings.
An ERA and FIP in the threes is just what Storman does. 2023 was the fifth season out of his last six where he achieved those two marks. His sinker-heavy approach limits him to a strikeout rate that’s always hovered around 20%, but he makes up for it by not allowing a ton of homers. Stroman games feature a lot of balls in play, more or less the platonic ideal of what Rob Manfred has been calling for in the last decade.
Last year, though, there were fewer balls in play, because Stroman started walking batters at a worrisome clip. He’d never had higher than an 8% walk rate before that year, but he hit 9% in 2023, and his peripheral statistics agreed; he got ahead in the count less frequently, threw in the strike zone less often, and drew fewer chases when he did leave the zone. It was a bad combination, and on the whole it looks to me like his increase in walks was wholly earned.
Normally, a much higher walk rate without an accompanying increase in strikeouts would mean a bad time. But on the whole, Stroman succeeded anyway, for one reason and one reason only: he kept the ball on the ground superbly well. His 2.60 GB/FB ratio was the second-best in baseball behind only Logan Webb. This was a return to form for an erstwhile groundball machine; from 2015 through 2018, Stroman lived in this rarefied GB/FB air. Then he turned into more of a good-but-not-great groundballer for a few years.
How good will Stroman be in 2024? To me, it comes down to walks and grounders. If he’s keeping the ball on the ground like he did in 2023, we’re talking all upside. That many grounders is a license to print outs, particularly in a park like Yankee Stadium where fly balls are always a stiff breeze away from carrying out of the park. Likewise, if he can adjust his approach to send his walks back from worrisome towards a healthier level, he has room to allow more fly balls.
The reason that ZiPS is so pessimistic is that it thinks he’ll still walk plenty of batters, but that his groundball rate will shoot back down towards its 2021-22 levels. The 17 homers the system projects him to allow in 2024 simply wouldn’t make sense if he keeps getting grounders at his recent clip; we’d be talking about a downright unsustainable home run per fly ball rate to reach that number.
As my free agent rankings attest, I don’t agree with the computer on this one. I thought Stroman was going to make far more than this, and the crowd did too: We both predicted a three-year deal worth a total of $66 million. Clearly, teams share the model’s concerns. Maybe I should say models, plural; Steamer has him down for a similarly lackluster performance this season.
I just don’t quite see it. That’s a lot of certainty that a guy who has been effective for years will summarily lose it. Stroman’s sinker looked better than ever to my eyes last year; he’s always killed lift on the ball to a ludicrous degree, and that hardly changed. His breaking ball is as sweeping as ever. I’m marginally worried about his plan against lefties, but he’s been proving me wrong his entire career there; he has nearly neutral platoon splits over 2,500-plus batters faced on each side of the plate. His sinker’s unique shape simply doesn’t get picked on by lefties as much as you might think, even if he doesn’t have the best set of secondaries to complement it.
That’s enough about Stroman as a pitcher. The TL;DR is that there are some undeniable red flags, but that I think they’re overstated and that he’ll be an effective starter again. If you’re with me, then it’s pretty clear why the Yankees made this signing. They’ve been trading off pitchers for years at this point. They sent a big sampler platter to the Padres for Soto. They traded three pitchers to the Red Sox for Alex Verdugo. When they went on an acquisition spree in 2022, they traded almost exclusively from their pitching depth to add Harrison Bader, Frankie Montas, and Andrew Benintendi. Their farm system still features multiple interesting starting prospects, but some stable innings from outside the organization were necessary to give the team enough depth to survive a season.
Another way of looking at it: There’s no doubt that these Yankees will score runs. The Soto/Judge pairing is going to lead to plenty of crooked numbers and blowout wins. The team’s most pressing concern is how to put together enough respectable innings of pitching to make the offense’s contributions matter.
Of the names remaining on the free agent market, Stroman is the best fit of immediate impact without long-term consequence. Could the Yankees add Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery? Sure, but Snell isn’t exactly an innings-eater and the team was clearly out enough on Montgomery that they traded him away rather than pencil him into their postseason rotation. Stroman definitely presents injury risk, but for the price, he’s a great mix of bulk and quality.
This signing doesn’t have to be anything more than that: It’s a quality mid-rotation starter getting a little less money than he might have in the past because projection systems saw some worrying trends in his performance. That’s a reasonable piece of business for everyone involved.
There are two marginal monetary concerns worth touching on before I finish up here. First, there’s a third-year option in the contract for $18 million. That vests if Stroman reaches 140 innings pitched in 2025, which is a reasonable breakeven number; he just missed 140 in each of the last two years, but exceeded that number in his last two seasons of work before that. If he hits that mark and exercises the option, this deal will look a lot like both my and the crowd’s projections. In that sense, maybe the weak computer model numbers affected Stroman’s certainty more than his expected talent level; if he’s available, he’ll get more or less what I expected, but his durability is a legitimate reason for concern after the past two years.
Second, this deal shows that the Yankees are willing to exceed the highest competitive balance tax threshold. Per RosterResource, their 2024 CBT payroll stands just above $300 million after signing Stroman and agreeing to contracts with their arbitration-eligible players. They barely crested that highest threshold – $60 million above the nominal “cap” line – in 2023, and they’ll be even further above it in 2024. I don’t think this necessarily precludes any further signings, but it definitely suggests that they’ll be trying to “win” any further transactions that add to payroll this winter. From that perspective, I think that Stroman might be the perfect fit; he’s a relative bargain in my eyes, and going over that fourth threshold really does hurt, so minimizing the amount by which you’re over (every dollar over $60 million above the first CBT threshold is taxed at a marginal 110% rate for repeat offenders) really does matter. From on-field need to monetary fit, there’s just a lot to like about this deal, even if no one is quite sure how Stroman will do next year.