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These X-factors will decide the Yankees’ fifth starter

Something outside pure performance could determine the last rotation spot

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

This is the last entry in an unofficial fifth starter series. I’ve already talked about Michael King and Jordan Montgomery as possible back-of-the-rotation pieces in 2020, but today let’s look at the structure of the job as a whole. One of the things we love about sports is the thrill of competition, but the fifth spot in the rotation may be decided by other factors than simply projections or spring training performance.

Veteran Presents

Right now, the de facto fifth starter is J.A. Happ. He’s the elder statesman on the staff, and despite the Yankees continually putting their faith in younger players over the past few seasons, they’ve retained the services of a few key vets to keep the clubhouse on an even keel. These intangibles are a big part of why Brett Gardner was brought back, and why CC Sabathia was a Yankee until his arm virtually fell off.

With Sabathia retired, that torch may fall to Happ. He’s a player that has experienced success in the playoffs, rebuilt himself after he struggled with onfield performance, and has conducted himself in the white-hot New York spotlight without any issues. All of these things are key lessons for younger players.

Of course, if that sounds like a couple other pitchers currently on staff - including one most recently signed - that’s not that surprising. Indeed, Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka could easily be seen as the veterans to look up to, and bring the same kind of intangibles to the table, making Happ less valuable relatively.

Salary and Options

It’s no secret the Yankees are lacking the much-desired payroll flexibility, and the easiest path to restoring some of that is to trade away Happ. Obviously if he’s dealt, it’s rather difficult for him to be the Yankees’ fifth starter, and the competition to replace him would be on.

The other factor, even if Happ is still on the roster come Opening Day, is his vesting option which kicks in at 165 IP or 27 starts in 2020. If the Yankees are trying to deal Happ now, it doesn’t signal a lot of confidence in their desire to have him on the team at the same salary and a year older in 2021.

Should Happ be on the roster and the Yankees look to maneuver around the vesting option, they could have him work in the bullpen for chunks of the season, or even adopt a piggyback strategy where a different pitcher records the first 6-9 outs of the game, Happ works 9-12 outs, and then the regular bullpen deployment takes over. With both Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino expected to pick up big innings totals, it could free up some space for the team to be creative with the fifth spot if they see value with Happ, but not enough value to keep him in the rotation full-time.

Rabbit Ball Redux

The most difficult thing to project for this rotation is the ball’s impact on offense in 2020. The Yankees’ staff was particularly hurt by a funky baseball in 2019, with Domingo German, Sabathia, and Happ all setting career highs in HR/9. Soft tossers who rely on controlling contact rather than generating strikeouts are most hurt by the rabbit ball, as so many soft-to-medium flyouts suddenly left the park in 2019.

This could spell concern not just for Happ, but also for Montgomery, who relies on a similar approach despite a much stronger career K-BB%. If the ball behaves normally, the projections for all these pitchers changes dramatically, but unfortunately we likely won’t know what baseball is being used until the fifth starter decision has been made.