Wherever you turn this winter, somebody’s talking about the New York Yankees rotation. Pretty much everybody agrees that the team needs to add somebody, and so the Yankees have been linked to every available pitcher, from Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg to Robbie Ray, with analysts discussing how one pitcher or another would revolutionize the Yankees’ rotation, or provide much-needed depth.
While we do this, however, it’s important to take stock of which pitchers currently sit on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, giving us the projected floor for the team come April.
The Uncertain Ace: Luis Severino
Lost in all the discussion about Luis Severino’s injury-shortened season is just how good of a pitcher he is.
Compared to other top pitchers in the league, including top free agents Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and Severino matches up very well to the league’s top pitchers when he was their age. His last complete season was a little bit better than middle of the pack in terms of FIP, in fact.
We find similar reasons for optimism when shifting the comparison to graph not by player age, but by calendar year.
Although it’s a little hard to see, Severino comes in just under a 3 FIP at 2.95, better than Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, and Stephen Strasburg, and within a third of a run from everybody except Jacob deGrom. Both these trends give us a very clear comparison: should Luis Severino stay healthy, they will have one of the best pitchers in the league at the top of their rotation.
Hopefully Severino’s rough 2019 health-wise stays in 2019.
The Uneven Frontline Starter: James Paxton
Paxton’s 2019 was not bad by any stretch of the imagination: his 15-6 record with a 3.82 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 150 innings in 29 starts anchored the rotation for much of the season, and he came up big in Game Five of the ALCS when the Yankees had their backs against the wall. But he struggled at times throughout the year, particularly in the first half, and it wasn’t until he began trusting his knuckle-curve more that he became the type of front-line pitcher that the Yankees hoped for.
Although not one of the league’s premier pitchers, Paxton is more than capable of fronting a team’s staff, and Baseball-Reference and Statcast’s algorithms describe him as comparable to Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard, and Blake Snell — three pitchers Yankees fans would add to this rotation in a heartbeat. That comes at a price, however, as Statcast also finds him comparable to free agent Martin Perez and his 5.21 ERA since 2017.
In some ways, James Paxton is like a Targaryen: every time he gets the ball, the world flips a coin and you’ll find out later which way it fell. So long as he keeps the good starts more common than the bad, he’ll continue to be a solid piece at the top of the rotation.
Mr. Big Game: Masahiro Tanaka
Sometimes, I’m convinced that there are two pitchers named Masahiro Tanaka that share one spot on the Yankees roster. There’s April-through-September Tanaka, who has elite stuff but can lose his feel for it for stretches of time: one day, he’s lights-out, throwing a complete game shutout while limiting opposing batters to two hits; on another day, he gives up 12 runs. Then there’s October Tanaka, who is making a case as one of the best postseason pitchers of this generation, and one of the best all-time.
When the pressure’s on, expect Tanaka to deliver. But during the regular season, the only things consistent about Tanaka are his ability to eat innings and his inconsistency.
Over the Hill: J.A. Happ
Here at Pinstripe Alley, we gave Happ a grade of F+ for his work as a starter this season. Unfortunately, that’s a very bad floor, and while there’s some signs that he may have figured things out by season’s end (he had a 1.65 ERA in September), he is 37. A player’s “floor” at that age is completely bottoming out. And since we’re talking about what the rotation’s floor is...that’s not a good sign.
Probably Suspended: Domingo German
Domingo German began 2019 as the Yankees’ savior, anchoring the rotation as Luis Severino missed virtually the whole season. His season came to an ugly finish, however, as he was placed on administrative leave as MLB investigates allegations of domestic violence against German.
As of now, it’s probably best to assume no contribution from German in 2020, given his short track record and current absence. That’s the baseball aspect of his suspension, though, and admittedly, the baseball ramifications are the least important part of a situation like this.
The Unknowns: Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, Michael King, Nick Nelson
There’s a lot of potential in this group: Montgomery was following up a stellar rookie season with a solid 2018 before requiring Tommy John surgery, while Deivi Garcia, Michael King, and Nick Nelson are all prospects the Yankees appear to think highly of.
At the same time, however, it would be worse than naive for a contender to really count on any of these guys for the 2020 season. Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery is no sure thing, and Montgomery still has to prove that he hasn’t lost anything, while pitching prospects are volatile at best. For the time being, until they can prove otherwise, consider them a non-factor.