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The Yankees rotation is shaky, but it isn’t a game-breaker

The Yankees’ starting staff is neither a disaster nor a true strength, instead profiling as just another league average rotation.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Yankees entered this offseason with a handful objectives. They were in the market for a designated hitter, so Matt Holliday is now in pinstripes. They also had a fervent desire to recapture the magic of No-Runs DMC, so they signed Aroldis Chapman. New York has also made noise about patching the rotation, but thus far, starting pitching reinforcements are nowhere to be found.

Tyler analyzed the dangers inherent in the leaky back of the rotation earlier this week. As he notes, none of the Yankees' top picks to fill the number five starter role are slam dunks. Luis Cessa looks like he has a decent chance to stick as a starter with his relatively deep repertoire of pitches, but the tendency of both Bryan Mitchell and Chad Green to rely on two-pitch power arsenals would seem to make them natural fits for the bullpen. This is without even mentioning whether the talented Luis Severino will manage to stick in the rotation.

If one was to focus solely on the downside risk of all the Yankees' pitchers, things would certainly appear dire. Severino's sophomore slump could continue into his third year, none of the Cessa, Mitchell, and Green triumvirate could amount to anything, and the top of the rotation also has its question marks (see: Pineda, Michael). However, to see only the risk in the Yankees' rotation would be to miss two things: 1) the innate upside that accompanies that downside, and 2) the fact that the Yankees' starting pitching woes are hardly unique.

Let's start with number two there. The back end of the Yankees' rotation undoubtedly looks bad, yet that could be said about virtually every team in baseball. In fact, in most cases, outside of the dominant rotations of teams like the Dodgers, Nationals, and Mets, the back of the rotation is generally expected to be bad.

Look at, for example, the Pirates, a team known for churning out quality pitching. They are currently slated to rely heavily upon unproven youngsters like Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault. Or look at the defending AL West champion Rangers, who are crossing their fingers that Andrew Cashner and AJ Griffin aren’t terrible. Heck, even look at the juggernaut Cubs, who, with the impending departure of Jason Hammel, have nothing resembling a proven fifth starter.

Given the context of the rest of the league, the Yankees' rotation really just looks pretty average. In fact, current FanGraphs' projections (all caveats regarding projections at this early stage apply) peg the Yankees' starting staff as the 10th best in baseball. You can quibble with individual projections (I imagine most would happily take the under on Pineda's 3.5 WAR forecast), and fWAR is very far from a definitive measure. Regardless, even if you take the very reasonable stance that the projections are optimistic, it's hard to see the Yankees' rotation as anything other than close to the median.

Being around the median means that if one or two things go wrong, the Yankees could end up with a below average rotation. But it also means that if a couple things go right (envision a scenario where Pineda holds it together and Severino pitches like his rookie season, or a scenario in which Masahario Tanaka finishes top-3 in the Cy Young voting and Cessa turns out to be good, etc.), the Yankees could end up with an above average rotation. In reality, this staff looks middling, with sizable error bars in both positive and negative directions.

More broadly, the main issue with the Yankees' roster isn't simply that the back of the rotation is suspect: it's that the entirety of the rotation and the lineup appears to be fairly middling. The Yankees' lineup and starting staff aren't especially poor, but they aren't clear positives either, leaving the bullpen as the only true strength on the team. It's great that the bullpen could be dominant yet again, but the 2016 Yankees serve as a potent reminder of how difficult it can be to win consistently when the bullpen is the only good unit on the roster.

Of course, things would be quite different if a top pitcher like Jose Quintana was brought in. Acquiring an elite pitcher is different than signing, say, a second baseman. When a team signs a second baseman, the new player replaces the best second baseman on the roster, but when a team signs a top pitcher, the new pitcher effectively replaces the worst pitchers on their roster. Transferring 200 innings from Mitchell, Green, and the like to a pitcher like Quintana could amount to several extra wins on the Yankees' ledger.

That kind of acquisition isn’t close to happening, but it is still somewhat tantalizing in the abstract. One more elite pitcher to pair with Tanaka would eliminate some of the questions surrounding the back of the staff, and would vault the Yankees' staff towards the upper tier. Even without Quintana, the Yankees' rotation isn't a disaster, nor is it a sure-fire quality rotation filled with high potential arms. The reality, as usual, is somewhere in between.