The Yankees were connected yesterday to free agent Blake Snell but it appears they are exploring the trade market as well. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the Yankees, and the Orioles, have “sincere” interest in Dylan Cease. The O’s were previously connected to Cease and Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com reported earlier this week that they “remain engaged” with the White Sox. Rosenthal adds that the Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox, all previously reported to have interest in Cease, are possibly still in the mix, with other clubs perhaps involved as well. The Braves and the Reds, who once had interest in Cease, appear to have moved on to other targets with Atlanta trading for Chris Sale and the Reds signing Frankie Montas and Nick Martínez.
Rumors have been flying around Cease all winter but he remains on the White Sox for now. About a month ago, it was reported that the White Sox were “pulling back” on the Cease talks. That wasn’t to take him off the market, but rather that the Sox wanted to wait until Yoshinobu Yamamoto signed to find out if clubs that missed on him would pivot to Cease as a fallback.
With the interest from the Yankees, that would appear to be exactly the case. They were one of the clubs that was heavily connected to Yamamoto before he signed with the Dodgers, leaving the Yanks looking elsewhere. They have considered Snell as well as free agent Jordan Montgomery but are checking in on Cease as well.
For the Yanks, they have Gerrit Cole cemented into the top spot of their rotation but things get less clear after that. Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes have the potential to be excellent contributors but both of them struggled badly in 2023, both with injuries and poor performance. Clarke Schmidt will likely be in the mix towards the back of the rotation, but the club subtracted from its depth in the Juan Soto trade, as Michael King, Drew Thorpe, Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez are all Padres now. Adding another starting pitcher, and having Rodón and Cortes bounce back a bit, would give the club a very strong front four, with Schmidt likely in the five spot and pitchers like Clayton Beeter, Yoendrys Gómez, Luis Gil and Will Warren providing the depth.
Cease would upgrade any rotation in the league, despite a relative down year in 2023. He had a 2.20 earned run average in 2022 but that figure jumped to 4.58 last year, though his underlying numbers paint a less drastic picture. His 2022 success wasn’t likely to be sustainable anyway, given his .260 batting average on balls in play and 82.3% strand rate, both of which are on the lucky side. Those numbers moved to .330 and 69.4% in 2023, pushing some extra runs across. His strikeout and swinging strike rates did tick down slightly but were both still well above average. His 3.10 FIP in 2022 jumped to 3.72 in 2023, suggesting a far less concerning shift, while his SIERA went from 3.48 to 4.10.
Looking at the past three years as a whole evens out some of that luck and paints and an incredibly flattering portrait. He’s made 97 starts since the start of 2021 with a 3.54 ERA and 29.8% strikeout rate. The 10.1% walk rate is on the high side but his 12.6 wins above replacement from FanGraphs in that time puts him eighth among all MLB pitchers.
His appeal goes beyond his skills, as his earning power is still capped by the arbitration system. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects Cease for a salary of $8.8MM this year and he will be due a raise in 2025 before reaching free agency.
The Yankees currently have a competitive balance tax figure of $290MM, according to Roster Resource. They are set to pay the tax for a third straight year in 2024, which sets them up for escalating penalties. They are already above the third tier of $277MM and nearing the fourth and final tier of $297MM. That means they are facing a tax rate of 95% on current spending until they go over the last line and then have a 110% rate on spending from there.
Signing a player like Snell or Montgomery would likely require the Yanks to give out a salary of around $25MM or more, with the taxes effectively doubling that. Given that Cease will be making around a third of that salary figure, that would obviously make him more attractive.
But the flip side of that equation is that Cease will also require sending something to the White Sox in return, likely a very significant package of talented young players. The Yanks just sent away a big batch of young pitchers in the Soto deal and may be reluctant to make another sizable dent in their talent pipeline. As for what the Sox would be looking for, Rosenthal says they are “staying open-minded” and “not necessarily inclined to favor a team that could include major-league-ready pitching.”
With the O’s also having “sincere” interest, they might have an edge on the Yankees in terms of having the talent to get a deal done. Despite constantly graduating prospects to the major league level in recent years, they are still considered to have the top farm system in the league by many evaluators. Jackson Holliday is almost certainly untouchable but the club also has guys like Colton Cowser, Coby Mayo, Jordan Westburg, Samuel Basallo, Heston Kjerstad and Joey Ortiz without enough open positions for all of them.
The club has also shown a bias against bold moves, both in the trade market and free agency, which is why they have that loaded farm system and almost no money on the books. If they decide now is the time to strike, Cease would fit nicely into a rotation with lots of talent but limited experience. Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez are at the top of the rotation for now, after each showed encouraging signs in 2023, but Bradish has less than two full years in the big leagues and Rodriguez less than one. Then there’s John Means, who has hardly pitched in the last two years due to Tommy John surgery, and guys like Dean Kremer and Cole Irvin options for the back end.
As mentioned, clubs like the Dodgers, Cardinals and Red Sox may still be involved and that might not even be the extent of the market. But with Yamamoto off the board, it seems the pitching market is broadly heating up and a Cease trade could happen at any time now.