As soon as the Yankees’ World Series hopes ended at the hands of the rival Red Sox during the ALDS last October, general manager Brian Cashman put his offseason plan into motion. Attention to the starting pitching was an announced priority, so he immediately re-signed team leader CC Sabathia to a one-year contract. He also re-upped J.A. Happ, who had performed so brilliantly down the stretch in helping the team clinch its postseason berth last season. The GM succeeded in upgrading one rotation spot by trading for another promising left-hander, James Paxton, who emerged as a potential high-end arm when he tossed a no-hitter last summer.
The trio of southpaws were set to join right-handers Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino in forming what the club hoped would represent an improved rotation to begin the 2019 campaign. Unfortunately, those plans suffered a setback even before spring training began, as Sabathia underwent an offseason angioplasty, which threatened to delay the start of what was billed as his final season. The starting staff was dealt another blow when Severino was scratched from his first scheduled Grapefruit League appearance with a shoulder injury.
Initially, Severino was expected to miss the first month of the season — at minimum. Meanwhile, there was no timeline established yet for Sabathia to join the rotation. So Cashman sprang into action to corral some starting pitching depth.
He settled on 11-year veteran Gio Gonzalez. The lefty has made 283 starts since 2010, a total eclipsed by only six pitchers, such as Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Jon Lester. Gonzalez produced 6.5 WAR en route to a sixth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting just two years ago, but struggled for much of last season.
Gonzalez finished on a high note, though, after Washington traded him to Milwaukee at the end of August. In fact, he was a key contributor in helping the Brewers mount a late-season surge which saw them capture the NL Central title by beating the Cubs in a one-game playoff. The Brewers won all five of his starts in September, as Gonzalez held opponents scoreless in three of those games.
Despite his high-profile contribution during last fall’s pennant race, Gonzalez surprisingly went unsigned more than a month into spring training. In a shocking turn of events, Cashman scooped him up on a minor-league deal on March 19th.
The pact guaranteed Gonzalez $3 million in base salary if he made the Yankees roster, plus it allowed him to earn an additional $300,000 per start. The contract held a maximum value of $12 million, and included an opt-out provision if the Yankees failed to add him to the 25-man roster by April 20th.
The 33-year-old made three starts for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He got hammered for eight runs in his first outing, but limited opponents to two runs over 11 frames in his final two. On April 20th, Gonzalez notified the Yankees of his intention to opt out, which gave the team an additional two days to either add him to the MLB roster or release him. Somewhat surprisingly, the Yankees chose to release him two days later.
“We brought him in as starter insurance. The contract was designed that way, too. He has no interest in being a reliever and now we were staring at this opt-out where he’s pitched well last two outings and I don’t have a starting spot for him. In the dialogue I’ve had directly with him, as well as our own assessments, is it worth us throwing $3 million into the bullpen and hope it works out?” - Yankees GM Brian Cashman speaking on WFAN.
While it’s certainly noble of Cashman to honor a player’s desire to serve in the role he wants, he isn’t obligated to do so. Considering Gonzalez missed all of spring training and made only three minor-league starts, it would have been understandable if the Yankees simply added him to the 25-man roster and pitched him in long relief, while waiting to see if a rotation spot would open up. Isn’t that the purpose of signing a guy as “starter insurance,” to keep him around, just in case?
Severino got shut down completely for an additional six weeks, and will remain sidelined until at least the end of June. Neither Paxton not Tanaka has ever made it through a season without getting injured, and Sabathia goes on the IL at least once a year due to his ongoing knee issue. Chances are, the Yankees would have needed Gonzalez to start sooner or later.
Without Gonzalez, the Yankees’ starting pitching depth is paper thin. Jonathan Loaisiga is ranked sixth on the depth chart, but he has only completed five innings at the major-league level in two starts during his short career (both of which occurred last season). In two starts this season, he lasted four innings, followed by only three.
Chance Adams is next in line after Loaisiga, but he has yet to prove that he belongs on a big-league roster. In fact, this year he’s having trouble just pitching effectively at Triple-A. In four starts, he’s allowed 14 runs in 17 innings. Luis Cessa follows Adams on the depth chart. The Yankees also have David Hale stashed away in Scranton, but he’s not on the 40-man roster.
Paxton, Happ, Sabathia, Tanaka, and Domingo German have performed very well as a group so far. Statistically, the Yankees’ starting staff rank among the upper third in the American League. They are a big reason the team sits in second place in the AL East — despite the unprecedented injuries that have devastated the lineup.
Nonetheless, the Yankees are just one injury away from a potential rotation disaster. Maybe Cashman didn’t like what he saw from Gonzalez and prefers to rely on internal options, if needed. Or maybe it was about the money. Whatever the reason, I can’t help but feel that the Yankees might come to regret the decision to cut Gonzalez loose.