When Christmas came early for the Yankees last December, with Gerrit Cole headed to the Bronx wrapped with a tidy pinstriped bow, it looked like the Yankees had finally been unshackled from their perennial ball and chain. Was it possible the starting rotation could be considered an area of strength, rather than a liability?
Imagine, Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino - the former the reigning Cy Young runner-up, the latter once a top-five starter in the AL in his own right - terrorizing opponents’ lineups. Yankees fans were justified in dreaming of that one-two punch equipped with blazing fastballs and bowel-shaking breaking balls at the top of their rotation. Then you throw in potentially the best versions of Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton with it all to prove pitching in contract years. Were we looking at possibly the best the best rotation in baseball on paper?
Ten chaotic months later, the biggest question facing the Yankees is the same one that has dominated the last several winters, one which the Yankees thought they had answered last December: the starting rotation.
As of right now the rotation consists of Cole followed by a mountain of uncertainty. Three of their veteran arms are set to hit the open market in Tanaka, Paxton, and J.A. Happ. Severino’s recovery timetable is a relative unknown while Domingo German’s standing on the team is in limbo. Jordan Montgomery is up-and-down while the younger farmhands could use more than a little polish. So how do the Yankees go about cobbling together a quality rotation for next season?
The most obvious route is reengaging with their outgoing free agents, but even this is a fraught endeavor. A major motivation for bringing back Tanaka - who has been a solid though never stellar pitcher in the regular season - was his sterling playoff record. One rain delay and one bad start later and his status as a postseason maestro has been thrown into question.
As for Paxton, I don’t think anyone knows what you’re gonna get out of him. He was supposed to be a crown jewel of this year’s free agent starting pitching class, and added to that narrative with his dominant finish to the 2019 season. Between then and now, he has undergone back surgery, lost several ticks off his fastball, and seen speculation rise as to whether he will require Tommy John surgery after he missed the end of the season with a forearm flexor strain. Surely the Yankees cannot expect a meaningful contribution from the oft-injured lefty even if they bring him back.
But wait, there already are MLB-proven starters aiming for a comeback next season, aren’t there? Not so fast! While the Yankees have pegged June or July as a potential return date for Luis Severino, this is no guarantee he will be ready to step into the rotation at midseason. In fact, it sounds eerily similar to the kinds of projections they made for his return timetable from his shoulder injury in 2019. The Yankees effectively lost him for the whole of the 2019 regular season, and it’s probably best they make plans expecting the same in 2021.
As for German, Hal Steinbrenner’s comments indicate the righty, who was suspended last season for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, has a long process ahead of him before being considered a part of the Yankees’ plans.
Perhaps the Yankees might be tempted to turn to the crop of younger pitchers who stamped their influence on this season. While it was encouraging that two of the highest touted prospects in Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt were given their major league debuts, their performances do not move the needle enough to disperse the fog of uncertainty hanging over the rotation. For those ready to pencil either youngster into the starting five, a rotation that includes García and/or Schmidt to start the season is a significant step backwards relative to the group heading into spring 2020.
Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled that both García and Schmidt were handed their well-earned debuts. García pitched brilliantly at times and not so much in other starts. Schmidt’s numbers appear inflated, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt considering he was thrust into two high pressure situations. I still don’t believe either is equipped for the 162-game grind of the regular season. Both would benefit from another year in the minors to smooth out the rough edges.
Rounding out the rest of the starting staff, Jordan Montgomery is pretty much guaranteed a spot next year. That’s fine, it’s just that Gumby projects far more as a fourth/fifth starter type, as opposed to the two-slot he currently occupies. Michael King displayed an inability to record outs after a single turn through the order, while Jonathan Loaisiga shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the major league roster, let alone the starting rotation.
Injuries, uneven performance, and pending free agency have left the rotation with more question marks than answers heading into a critical offseason period. The championship hopes for the 2021 season and beyond now ride on the next few uncertain months. So basically, déjà vu all over again.