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What happened to the Yankees’ highly-touted pitching staff?

In the offseason and preseason projections, the Yankees pitching staff was rated among the best. Where did that team go?

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Following their signing of Gerrit Cole last December, the Yankees’ pitching staff looked to be, for the first time in years, ranked among the best in the league. On top of its elite bullpen with five closer-quality arms, the Yankees finally had multiple elite frontline starters to match up favorably against the multi-ace rotations that serve as the backbone of recent champions. On top of all that, they had quality rotation depth that would have seen at least one of J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery relegated to the bullpen. Waiting in the wings, furthermore, were top prospects Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt.

And yet, somehow, the Yankees’ season ended the same way it has in recent years: with an over-taxed bullpen, forced to overextend itself to cover up for inadequacies in the rotation, finally breaking at the end of its rope. How did this fall happen?

Of course, that dream team never saw the field. Luis Severino was lost for the year, undergoing Tommy John surgery on February 27, while James Paxton never bounced back from the microscopic lumbar surgery he underwent on February 5, losing 3 mph on his fastball, before getting shut down for (ultimately) the year on August 24 due to Grade 1 strain of the left forearm flexor. The shortened season, meanwhile, prevented Domingo Germán from ever seeing the field. That left the Yankees counting on Montgomery and Happ for 19 starts, or almost one third of the season; had García not stepped up in his six starts, the team would have probably been in even worse shape.

The once-vaulted bullpen, meanwhile, also saw cracks. Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman missed time, the former with a hamstring strain, the latter due to a positive COVID-19 test. Adam Ottavino, meanwhile, fell out of Aaron Boone’s circle of trust by the end of the season. The big blow, however, was losing Tommy Kahnle to a torn UCL just days into the season. Because of this, a parade of middle relievers who never quite earned Boone’s trust began to see significant, high-leverage innings: Luis Cessa, whose 2020 season was the first time he posted an ERA under 4.11; Jonathan Holder, who has not pitched well since 2018; and Jonathan Loaisiga, who has a grand total of 79 career innings under his belt.

It’s impossible to predict injuries, and to some extent, that the team managed as well as it did with its thin rotation and only three trusted relievers is a testament to the quality of these players and the team’s lineup. However, despite all this, as Ryan noted the other day, these injuries did not happen just last week. Both the front office and the managerial office did nothing to fill them, either by going out and acquiring more arms at the trade deadline or by, as Dan pointed out, giving young pitchers like Clarke Schmidt, Nick Nelson, and Miguel Yajure an opportunity to jump Cessa, Loaisiga, and Holder in the bullpen hierarchy.

In the end, all this combined to take a highly-touted Yankees pitching staff and grind it to dust over the course of nine months and 60 games. And that may just be why the Yankees limped to the finish, both in the regular season and the playoffs.