After the Drew Smyly trade, we reached out to Lookout Landing prospect writer Ethan Novak to specifically learn about the cult favorite southpaw acquired by the Rays in Ryan Yarbrough.
@draysbay enjoy your mint condition Ryan Yarbrough (he's very fun and good)— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) January 11, 2017
What made him so special to mariners fans, and why will he be missed?
First off, let me say that losing Yarbrough pained me more than the loss of any other prospect in the multitude of trades made by Jerry Dipoto this offseason. It wasn’t that he had the highest ceiling or that I saw hidden ace potential or anything of that nature, but Yarbrough seemed like such a neat piece for a contending Seattle club to carry into 2017 and beyond. After the Mariners shipped Mike Montgomery to Chicago in a seemingly white flag-waving move last summer, they proceeded to piece together a half-decent stretch run, one that a pitcher like Mike Montgomery could’ve helped make enough of a difference to potentially push them to, at the very least, a play-in game.
I bring up Montgomery because over the course of the numerous Yarbrough starts I watched this year, he was the comparison I kept coming back to. Yarbrough is a little stingier with the free passes and doesn’t possess a stellar cutter like Montgomery, but both are lanky lefties who limit hard contact despite low strikeout numbers (this situation was remedied for Montgomery after a shift to the bullpen, which we’ll discuss in a second).
As a starter, I like Yarbrough just fine as a potential back end of the rotation arm. He loves to pound the strike zone with a low-90s fastball and will put hitters away with either his plus-changeup or slider that improved over the course of the season. Like I mentioned before, he excels at limiting hard contact, generating a ton of ground balls and managing to keep hitters off balance despite his limited arsenal. That being said, that same limited arsenal will likely prevent him from being anything more than a No. 4/5 starter, barring a sudden change in his development (i.e. adding a pitch, which has already been suggested here at DRaysBay...
... or by adding some strength/velocity). If I had to pick one pitcher in the Mariners’ system — prior to the trade, obviously — to outwork projections and somehow turn into a nifty, mid-rotation starter, it would’ve been Yarbrough. In a rotation that included Edwin Diaz and Andrew Moore at various points in the year, I always identified Yarbrough as the most reliable starter on his minor league roster.
One move I was interested in for Yarbrough prior to the trade was a swingman type of role in the bullpen, filling the hole left by Mike Montgomery.
Yarbrough’s fastball would play up to the mid-90s in relief appearances, making his changeup all the more effective and his limited breaking ball less vulnerable. He’d obviously be available as a spot starter and long relief in this scenario, as well. Should the rotation begin to not work out for him–there were concerns of his ability to work deep into games–I feel this would be a successful and desirable fallback plan.
In terms of readiness, I likely would’ve been somewhat comfortable with Yarbrough making a spot start for the Mariners last season. He has advanced command and his fastball-changeup combination is good enough to survive a couple of trips through a MLB lineup that has never faced the deceptive Yarbrough before.
In order to stick in a rotation, he’ll need to polish the breaking ball some to keep hitters honest and he must improve on strength and stamina, as previously suggested. The 128.1 innings he threw in 2016 was a career high, and I would expect him to improve upon that number in 2017. Expect him to start the year in Triple-A, with an outside shot at a midseason call-up if all goes well.
To summarize briefly, we were all bummed to see Yarbrough go. The slider was getting better and he was beginning to look like a potential three-pitch pitcher. He still doesn’t have that put away pitch you want your guy to have in his back pocket, but the command and deception is so strong that it doesn’t seem to matter a lot of the time. Best-case scenario results in Yarbrough being a mid-rotation starter hovering around that 2-3 WAR mark every year. Worst-case scenario, the Rays landed themselves a nifty left-handed reliever for their bullpen.
Most likely scenario: Yarbrough is a perfectly fine back of the rotation starter, nothing more and nothing less. Guys like that are nice to have around.
Thanks to Ethan Novak for his thoughts on the new Rays pitcher. For more of his work, you can follow him on twitter here.