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Can Luis Cessa be a reliable starter for the Yankees?

Luis Cessa wasn’t great last season, but he also wasn’t bad. If the Yankees think he can repeat that...’success’, there may be a fifth starter job waiting for him.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

While most teams enter Spring Training with a couple minor roles on their squads still up in the air—from utility player to the 25th man on the bench to the fifth starter—the Yankees will be dealing with far larger question marks. A whole chunk of their depth chart, stretching from the final two starters to the full middle and long relief corps, is completely up for grabs entering 2017. A bevy of options exist for these many spots, with each having their many positives and negatives, but one of the most interesting candidates is Luis Cessa.

Cessa, acquired along with Chad Green in last offseason’s Justin Wilson deal, doesn’t have the vertigo-inducing ceiling and floor of Luis Severino, nor does he have the whiff-inducing arsenal of Chad Green. In fact, even though I called Cessa interesting as a rotation candidate in the paragraph above, his overall skillset is anything but.

The 24-year-old does have a solid fastball, which comes in at 95 miles per hour and has average movement. It’s a perfectly fine first offering, but the pitch was hit hard last season with a .573 slugging percentage against. Considering Cessa used the four-seamer a little over half the time, and it’s merely a mediocre pitch that doesn’t generate many whiffs, it isn’t surprising that hitters caught on quickly and pounded the fastball when thrown.

The fastball may be to blame for Cessa’s horrid 2.07 HR/9 last season as well, which was fifth worst in baseball (minimum 70 innings). 12 of his 16 home runs allowed came off the heater, and this is probably a result of Cessa’s command of the pitch. The righty worked up in the zone with the fastball, hoping to increase swing-and-misses while also changing the eye level of hitters.

Unfortunately, Cessa wasn’t able to accomplish either of those things, and an ugly byproduct of this failed pattern was a ton of home runs. Cessa can’t get away with that rate of home runs again, so a change in where he spots the fastball may be in order. On the other hand, Cessa may just have to throw the fastball less—he can’t throw a pitch half the time if it isn’t better than average.

Luckily, Cessa’s repertoire is deep enough that he should be able to get away with throwing that four-seamer less, something that would likely increase its effectiveness. This tweak in pitch mix is very doable, and could help the righty improve upon his 4.35 ERA last season, which was split between a 51.2 innings as a starter (4.01 ERA) and 18.2 innings as a reliever (5.30 ERA).

While none of Cessa’s other pitches are traditional ‘out pitches,’ he has enough of them—a curveball, changeup, and slider—that they should be able to shoulder the load of more usage (if the fastball were to be thrown less). Most scouts graded all three secondary offerings as average at best, but if last season is to be believed, two of these pitches may have went separate ways in development over the past year or so.

Cessa’s slider may not be the dominant second pitch he’s always lacked, but it appeared to take a step forward last season. While the slider’s movement isn’t great (the horizontal break is relatively poor), it generates a lot of whiffs and a ton of groundballs. In fact, last year’s 64% groundball rate on Cessa’s slider was fourth best in baseball, and second best among starters. The impressive results on the pitch likely come from his command of the pitch—Cessa did an excellent job keeping it down in the zone last season—and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue to see strong returns on it next season.

On the other hand, Cessa’s curveball was hit hard in 2016. The pitch is about as flat as the horizon and hitters didn’t have much trouble elevating it. Given the rate at which the curveball was put into play, Cessa actually got lucky with how few times it landed for a hit (this was a large driver of his unsustainably low .233 BABIP). Unfortunately, it was easy enough to make contact with the curve that it still had some ugly results. It’s hard to see this changing next season, and, if anything, things may just get worse if Cessa isn’t so fortunate with batted ball luck.

Luckily, the solution to Cessa’s trouble with the curve (horrible movie, I know) is, like the fastball, to stop throwing it so much. Cessa might have to lean on the slider and changeup more next season, but, if he can continue to have strong results on the two pitches, this should be enough for him to be a solid backend starter. He’ll never be more than that due to the lack of a whiff-inducing out pitch, but there are the makings here of a pitcher who can be better than a middle reliever. Cessa will have to learn how to keep the ball in the park to achieve this #4/5 starter upside, but it’s a reachable upside if he can adjust some in his sophomore season.