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The State of Yankees Pitching, Part I: The Starting Rotation

The rotation has performed well, but the lack of depth is glaring

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The New York Yankees were always going to be one of the best teams in baseball, but they weren’t quite supposed to do it this way. We’ve talked a lot about all of the surprises in the lineup, but really, the starting rotation has also been a pleasant surprise. The Yankees are fifth in fWAR as a rotation, and have respectable underlying metrics in 2019.

Still, it’s always good to take a step back and evaluate something from all aspects. The Yankees’ rotation has been good, but it has also been thin. We knew this way back in March, when FanGraphs lauded the starters’ ceiling while committing four paragraphs to concerns about injury problems and the lack of reliable minor league options ready.

The team is certainly at a crossroads, made more evident when Domingo German was stuck on the IL with a hip flexor issue, adding concern to a season that has seen German emerge as the savior of the Yankee staff. In spite of his performance, we know there’s an innings limit, and with that and the injury concerns around James Paxton and CC Sabathia, this strong Yankee staff has the same depth concerns they’ve always had, while maintaining the same high ceiling.

The way I see it, there are three paths for the Yankees for the remainder of 2019: they can stay the course and wait for Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery as stabilizing influences, they can engage the trade market, or they can hope the in-house options hold up.

None of these are perfect solutions. It’s been difficult to get reliable updates on Luis Severino’s condition, and rotator cuff problems are not to be taken lightly. The idea that he’ll be able to immediately slot back into the top of the rotation and be among the best pitchers in baseball, like we saw in 2017 and half of 2018, is dubious.

I feel similarly about Montgomery – Tommy John surgery and its recovery is a little more orthodox and predictable than a shoulder problem, but we have pretty robust evidence that command is the last thing to return after TJS. For a guy like Monty, that’s really bad news; he relies on excellent command to compensate having the same pure stuff as Severino or Paxton and the like.

Still, the Yankees have a full five men in the rotation when German comes back, and obviously have much better medical information and timetables than the general public. It’s entirely possible they have confidence in Severino’s ability, doubly so if they think his injury contributed to his falloff in late 2018. They could hold the rotation as it is, slide Severino in while winding down German’s innings, and still go into the playoffs with a pretty tantalizing top-three.

Of course, health is not guaranteed and it’s not like the starters in the rotation are known to be super healthy. Both CC Sabathia and James Paxton have spent time on the IL this year, and if another pitcher goes down the Yankees won’t have much choice but to look into the trade market. We also know that Brian Cashman has checked in on the availability of Marcus Stroman and Madison Bumgarner, the latter of whom has a no-trade list that reportedly includes New York. Stroman will be the more expensive of the two, and not just because of a possible inter-division premium. More to the point, the Yankee farm system doesn’t boast a lot of high-ranked, high-upside prospects, the type that really swing deals.

Only one Yankee farmhand consistently ranked among the Top 100 of most public preseason prospect lists, outfielder Estevan Florial. Florial’s got injury trouble that could make teams a little gun-shy, but a strong performance so far in 2019 from Deivi Garcia will likely vault him into the midseason prospect rankings. Those two are really the best high-ceiling pieces in the Yankee system at this time, and would be the assets other teams look at when discussing trades for their best pitchers. Cashman has a terrific track record with trades, so there’s a possibility a less obvious deal is out there, but all 30 teams know the Yankees have a depth problem, and that will raise asking prices.

Lastly, there’s the possibility that neither of these things happen; Severino and Montgomery can’t be counted on for anything in 2019, and the price for pitching is too high on the trade market. In this case, you’re looking at the team holding steady, relying on their four set starters plus whatever innings limits they’ve set on German. Combine the limit with the above discussed health concerns, and you can expect more to be asked of the bullpen, often in the form of an opener. I’ll have more to say about the bullpen as a unit tomorrow, but the opener’s performance so far this year has to elicit some confidence in Yankee fans.

Even in Sunday’s goat rodeo of a game in Cleveland, Chad Green and Nestor Cortes Jr combined to throw five innings of one-hit, shutout ball, exactly what the opener-follower combination is supposed to do. The Yankees have yet to lose a game where they deployed the opener, and while they’re not going to go undefeated with the strategy this year, a high-performance bullpen when matched with a good offense will still probably net you a lot of wins.

This is probably the most complicated question the team has to answer this year. Balancing the depth and the ceiling was something the Yankees didn’t do all that well last offseason, and it’s come back to bite them now. The good news is that the team is in a strong position to move forward on the issue, they just have to make the right choice if they want the rotation to remain a strength.