In the aftermath of the announcement that Luis Severino will undergo Tommy John surgery, the “next man up” mentality of the 2019 Yankees might be as relevant as ever. The trick in 2020 will be choosing just who that “next man” is.
Jordan Montgomery appears to be the favorite for the fourth starter role, but Aaron Boone and the Yankees’ front office still have to figure out the back end of the rotation. Brian Cashman has made clear the team will seek to address the issue internally, at least for now, and as the organization evaluates its options, Jonathan Loaisiga must stand out as a tempting solution.
It’s easy to get excited about Loaisiga’s potential emergence as the fifth starter. The righty’s pitch mix features an electric fastball, bolstered by a killer curveball and a legit changeup. His strikeout numbers at the major-league level impress — 70 punch-outs in just 56.1 frames — and his poise and delivery even drew comparisons back in 2018 to Mariano Rivera.
Stretching Loaisiga out for a starting role seems like a low-risk, high-reward proposition. If he doesn’t catch on as a starter, the Yankees could always relegate him to the bullpen. But for all his promise, the book on Loaisiga contains an unfortunate chapter, one the team should note carefully after delivering the Severino news: he’s a serious injury concern.
After a sizzling start in the Giants organization in 2013, Loaisiga missed all of 2014 due to injury. San Francisco cut him loose in May of 2015, and he missed the rest of that season as well. After the Yankees brought him into the fold in 2016, he lost all but 2.1 innings of the season to Tommy John surgery.
Loaisiga finally got his first taste of MLB action in 2018, then earned another call-up to the Yankees last year. Unfortunately, he missed a big chunk of the season with a trip to the 60-day IL due to a right rotator cuff strain.
All along, Loaisiga has persevered in admirable fashion, and once again he appears ready to contribute to this roster. If the Yankees are wise, he’ll do so as a reliever. In addition to his limited time in the majors, he’s thrown just 108.2 minor league innings over the last four years. In that span, he hasn’t pitched more than 56 innings, across all levels, in a single season. For all his talents, he’s yet to prove he’s shaken off the injury bug.
If the Yankees were to employ Loaisiga as a starter, he’d be bumping up against that upper threshold by the early summer. Even if the Yankees were to shift him back to a bullpen role after James Paxton’s return, his innings load — and his injury risk — would be in mostly uncharted territory for the remainder of the season.
This risk is unnecessary, especially since the Yankees have the pieces to implement a regular bullpen game until Paxton returns. Chad Green has proven himself a capable opener, mixing 15 starts — 11 of which the Yankees won — into his larger body of work as a reliever in 2019. Luis Cessa has his detractors, but he soaked up 81 innings in middle relief last year.
Plus, the Yankees have a bevy of young arms they are high on, Loaisiga included, who can help stitch together enough innings to keep the Yankees competitive every fifth day. And if some of that burgeoning talent makes the most of the opportunity, those bullpen games might actually ease the burden on the “Four Horsemen” who pitch in the late innings: Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman.
If the team is wary of overusing their relievers, then a more workload-friendly up-and-comer could be called upon for the fifth starter role. Mike King has emerged as a dark horse candidate for the job, and is at least familiar with the strain of a full season.
He threw 149 innings in 2017, and 161.1 in 2018, all in the minors. He was sidelined last season with a stress reaction in his pitching elbow, an issue he also faced in college, but he recovered in time to make his major league debut in September.
Even if the Yankees aren’t satisfied with those options, there’s still no need to lean on Loaisiga as a full-time starter. While Cashman doesn’t expect the pitching market to be robust until at least June, it should eventually offer alternatives. The Dodgers’ Ross Stripling is seemingly still available for trade after his move to the Angels was nixed this offseason, and speculation will surely bubble up as more names arise during the summer.
If the Yankees are patient enough to wait for those names, they should be just as prudent in their use of Loaisiga. Tempting as his talents might be, the Yankees would be right to prioritize his long-term viability. Now is the time, while fans are still reeling from the blow to Severino, for the Yankees to show confidence in the bullpen depth they’ve built, and to inspire confidence in their ability to handle promising young pitchers like Loaisiga.