The Yankees held high hopes for their revamped starting rotation heading into spring training. After all, four of the starters who helped the team achieve its first 100-win season since 2009 remained in the fold. Plus, the club succeeded in swapping out its least effective starter in favor of a potentially high-ceiling arm who notched a no-hitter last season.
Unfortunately, disappointment struck almost immediately, as staff ace Luis Severino got scratched from his first Grapefruit League start. Although initially expected to miss only the first month of the season, Severino suffered a setback resulting in him getting shut down for an additional six weeks. Even if everything goes right from this point on, Severino won’t make his 2019 debut until late June at the earliest.
Severino wasn’t the only starter missing from the Bombers’ rotation on Opening Day. Veteran southpaw CC Sabathia was late to join the team as he continued recovering from his offseason angioplasty.
This isn’t the first time the Yankees faced rotation issues early in the season. At times, it continued dogging them throughout the season — but not always.
In the spring of 1977, the Yankees were a team on a mission. The previous year, they took a major step forward in their rebuild by finally making it back to the postseason following an 11-year absence. The newly-renovated Yankee Stadium had been christened in dramatic fashion, as Chris Chambliss’ gargantuan home run in the bottom of the ninth during the final game of the ALCS catapulted the Bronx Bombers past the Royals and into the World Series. The highest of highs quickly turned into the lowest of lows, however, as New York suffered a humiliating four-game sweep at the hands of the Big Red Machine.
George Steinbrenner vowed to do everything in his power to return the Yankees to the Fall Classic — but with the firepower required to win it. He made good on his promise by personally pursuing and ultimately signing Reggie Jackson. Every fan knows what Reggie did against the Dodgers in the clinching game of the 1977 World Series, on the night he became Mr. October. But what looks in retrospect like a perfectly-scripted Hollywood fairy tale come true, almost never happened. In fact, the legendary season nearly got derailed at the onset.
Ace Catfish Hunter helped the ‘77 Yankees begin their quest for the franchise’s 21st World Series title on a high note, hurling seven shutout innings as the Bombers beat the Brewers on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Hunter was nearly perfect, allowing only three base runners, but then got scratched from his next start with a foot injury.
Hunter also suffered from arm problems, and with his return date uncertain, Yankees management sprang into action. Three weeks into the season, GM Gabe Paul shipped Dock Ellis to Oakland for Mike Torrez, after the scuffling starter publicly criticized owner George Steinbrenner. But Torrez didn’t report to New York right away due to complications with his wife’s pregnancy. So manager Billy Martin gave a spot start to a kid he reportedly didn’t like, Ron Guidry. Gator made the team as the mop-up man out of spring training, impressed in a few relief appearances, and Martin had no other options to start that game.
Guidry threw eight-plus shutout innings in his first MLB start, but was bumped back to the bullpen when Torrez finally joined the rotation a few days later. Because Hunter continued missing time, and big offseason free agent acquisition Don Gullet also got hurt, Guidry rejoined the rotation for good in mid-May.
Torrez and Guidry became the anchors of that staff. The pair appeared in four of the club’s five ALCS games against the Royals that October, with the Yankees winning three. Guidry and Torrez also went 3-0 in the World Series in three starts (all were complete games) against the Dodgers, as the Bombers claimed the championship.
The Yankees’ starting pitching had been among the best in MLB in 1976, and after essentially swapping out Doyle Alexander for Gullett, they assembled what everyone thought was a championship-caliber rotation in Hunter, Gullett, Ellis, Ed Figeroa, and Ken Holtzman. The quintet had won 15 pennants and nine World Series titles between them, yet it was the two guys who weren’t even in the rotation to begin the year that paced the club’s title run, both during the regular season and playoffs.
Just because big plans turn into an even bigger disappointment early on doesn’t mean a team must abandon title aspirations. Sometimes, when one door closes, another one opens. It’s up to Brian Cashman to keep kicking those doors open. He might find the next Torrez on the free agent market in Dallas Keuchel, or in a trade for someone like Mike Minor or Madison Bumgarner.
Just as it’s up to Cashman to pursue every possible outside option, it falls upon Aaron Boone to utilize the talent on the roster to see who might rise to the occasion. Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga are a few of the in-house options that just might rise up and become more important than merely rotation depth.
The rotation may not appear to be the team’s most pressing issue at the moment, considering two-thirds of the starting lineup resides on the injured list and the bullpen has not dominated as expected. A lights-out rotation, though, can help compensate for other deficiencies.
With lingering concerns surrounding the durability of James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka — neither starter has ever managed to make it through a season without getting injured — and Sabathia’s knee, it behooves the Bombers to continue looking for ways to improve their starting pitching. The Yankees have overcome early-season rotation issues to win the World Series before, and they can do it again.