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The case for Jonathan Loaisiga to start the season in the bullpen for the Yankees

With Dellin Betances off to the IL, should Loaisiga take his spot on the Opening Day roster?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The injury news continued for the Yankees on this week, as Dellin Betances was diagnosed with shoulder inflammation and will start the season on the IL. Betances now joins Aaron Hicks, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino and Didi Gregorius as contributors from the last year’s 100-win campaign that will be starting 2019 on the shelf.

Until some of these names can return, someone has to take their spots. The Yankees made an obvious move by grabbing starter Gio Gonzalez for some rotation depth, but given the fact that Gonzalez will only get one, maybe two outings in spring training due to the tardiness of his signing, he won’t be on the Opening Day roster and will have to work out some kinks in the minor leagues. Based on injuries and spring training performances, the rotation will likely consist of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Luis Cessa and Domingo German when the regular season opens in less than a week.

Jonathan Loaisiga was part of the race for the fifth spot, but a strong spring from Cessa and a handful of poor starts from Loaisiga have bumped him from contention. In light of the Betances news, though, there may be a role for Loaisiga yet. With the Yankees likely needing innings to be eaten up early on so their vaunted bullpen isn’t taxed by September, could Loaisiga slide in and replace Betances, to be counted on for multiple innings per outing?

Loaisiga’s spring numbers don’t exactly inspire confidence in the 24-year-old handling a major role in the bullpen, given his 7.50 ERA over his first 12 innings. Still, Loaisiga is touching 95-96 mph on the radar gun like he did in his big-league stint last year, and coupled with a curveball that induced a 40-percent chase rate in 2018, it’s easy to envision Loaisiga excelling out of the bullpen, or at least holding the for until Betances returns. His nasty stuff was on display in his most recent outing on Friday night, when he struck out seven batters over four innings.

Loaisiga’s curve is set up nicely by his plus velocity, but it’s his changeup that could become a lethal pitch in a relief role. Loaisiga threw it more than his fastball or curve down the stretch last season, and despite his overall numbers, the change has shown potential to be a really good pitch, which Aaron Boone eluded to after one of Loaisiga’s starts earlier this spring.

That changeup has hit 89 mph, which makes it tough to pick up as a hitter. A deceiving put-away pitch like his change, coupled with a fastball that could regularly reach the upper-90’s in a relief role, makes Loaisiga an intriguing bullpen candidate, but the question is whether the Yankees want him in that role. The team has hinted on multiple occasions that they see Loaisiga developing as a starting pitcher, which is certainly possible given his three-pitch arsenal. However, the same was said about Chad Green, who has turned into one of the most valuable relievers in the game after his trial as a starting pitcher ended.

Loaisiga already has major league experience, and even had some success before suffering an injury last season. He could start the season in the minors and continue to work as a starter, or the Yankees could consider adding him to the bullpen and eat up important innings that would otherwise be used to exhaust other relief arms, or given to pitchers with lesser raw stuff. Loaisiga by no means would replace an arm like Betances in terms of production, but he could help alleviate the added stress on the rest of the bullpen, and maybe even get some big outs along the way.