The dominant subplot to the 2016 Yankees is how they balance a desire to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, while simultaneously attempting to develop a talented group of young players that they hope will form the building blocks of future Yankees rosters. This tradeoff is a tricky one to get right, but it is essential that the team do so in a league where the best teams have a healthy dose of youth on their side.
No single player will have a bigger impact on the evaluation of how Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and the Yankees' front office manage this tradeoff than Luis Severino. Severino's story is one that fans are quite familiar with. After a sparkling debut in 2015, Severino was simply not good in his seven 2016 starts, pitching to a 7.46 ERA, a 1.69 WHIP, and allowing eight home runs in just 35 innings. He exited his last start on May 13 after just 2.2 innings complaining of discomfort in his right triceps. An MRI revealed a mild triceps strain, relatively good news considering fears that Severino would be ticketed for Tommy John surgery, and the Yankees placed Severino on the 15-day DL.
Severino is scheduled to make his first rehab start today with the Tampa Yankees, and from there the Yankees have a number of options that they can turn to as they groom Severino for a return to the Bronx. All of these options presume that Severino is healthy, because if he is not, his next steps will be determined by the team's medical staff rather than those in charge of making baseball decisions.
Rehab and Return
This option is predicated on how Severino does during his minor league rehab assignment. If he proves to be effective and healthy, the Yankees could insert Severino back into the rotation once his stint on the DL is up. This would displace one of their current starters, with Ivan Nova or Michael Pineda being the likely odd man out.
While this scenario seems unlikely, they could bring Severino back up and work with a six-man rotation going forward in order to give Masahiro Tanaka extra rest. Tanaka has shown signs of improved effectiveness with extra rest, but it is debatable to what extent it would help the team's other starters.
Either way, it would allow Severino to build up innings and continue to develop against major league hitters. However, it could end up hurting the rest of the rotation, depending on how they all react to an extra day off.
Demotion to Triple-A
If he struggles on Sunday and in his rehab starts that follow, the Yankees will opt to keep him in the minor leagues until he returns to the form he exhibited last season. Perhaps his mechanics are off, or his confidence could have taken a hit after struggling for the first time in his professional career. Regardless of the reason for his poor performance, the Yankees will not bring Severino back to the majors until he demonstrates that he is a) healthy and b) able to have a relatively high degree of success pitching to minor league hitters.
The Yankees could have Severino finish his rehab assignment, and then send him to Triple-A to continue pitching every five days until a spot opens up in the Yankees' rotation. There are two major advantages to this path. First, Severino can continue to work on his craft away from the spotlight and pressure of major league games, and second he can continue to build up his innings count. He pitched 161.2 innings between Double-A, Triple-A, and the big league club in 2015, and–ideally–would surpass that high-water mark this year to continue his push toward 200 innings.
The biggest downside to this approach is that it will likely inhibit Severino's development, as he will have to find a way to continue to improve while facing inferior competition. To date, he has done nothing but dominate at the minor league level, and the next step for him to take is to become a reliable cog in the Yankees' rotation.
They could also call him up to serve as a middle-innings reliever/spot starter. The Yankees are not scheduled to have an off day until June 13, and will need a sixth starter at some point during that stretch. Severino could fill that role, while finding innings out of the bullpen when the Yankees need some length from their relievers. The benefit to this approach is that Severino would be able to continue his development against top competition, while also not confronting the pressure and expectations of being relied upon as a crucial component of the rotation. The detractor here is that it will hinder Severino's ability to accumulate innings over the rest of the season.
How Severino rebounds during his rehab stint will go a long way towards determining when, and under what circumstances, he returns to the majors. At the moment, it would seem that Severino rejoining the team as a member of the bullpen would be the most prudent approach to take. He can rebuild his confidence against top competition, biding his time until an inevitably occurs. Severino might not reach 160+ innings pursuing this strategy, but certainly it is more important that he gain experience competing (and hopefully succeeding) against the best hitters in the world.
All of these options have advantages and drawbacks, making the decision a difficult one for the front office, but the Yankees have to get this one right. Outside of the short-term mandate to win as many games as possible, no long-term goal should be more important to the Yankees than the development of Severino.