After spending the bulk of the offseason focused on one massive improvement to the starting rotation, it seemed that the days of the opener were done for the Yankees. Plans can shift in an instant however, especially in light of injuries.
Such is the Yankees’ immediate future with the news of James Paxton going on the IL after surgery to remove a cyst, costing him the first couple months of the year. The team has held onto its pitching depth — including a veteran arm in J.A. Happ that they appeared willing to trade — due to the uncertainty in Paxton’s health, and now they know that it was a prudent decision. They’ll have to adjust the parameters of spring training, and open up a competition that they initially didn’t plan on having to find their fifth starter.
There’s a host of candidates that will push for the spot, but however the competition gets decided the Yankees will have a relatively-unproven young pitcher and an aging vet on the decline holding down the bottom of the rotation. While the top of the rotation should still provide plenty of insurance in the early going, the team may need to accommodate for the sudden variable that’s been thrown into the mix.
The Yankees had a lot of opportunities to test the opener strategy last season, and while they likely didn’t anticipate needing to bring it back so soon in 2020, it may be to their benefit. Their primary opener left on the roster, Chad Green, is one of the most versatile relievers in baseball and turned his year around by going all-in with the role after a rough start in 2019 led to a temporary demotion.
The other pitcher that they utilized in the opener role was Stephen Tarpley, but the team traded him to the Marlins this offseason after designating him for assignment. Tarpley was often paired with Green however, entering the game as part of a collective bullpen effort after Green worked through the first inning. Because of this, he is effectively being replaced by Happ and the fifth starter in this iteration of the opener.
There is also the case of Domingo German. The 27-year-old right-hander will return from his suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy in June, roughly around the time that Paxton should be back in the fold. When the roster changes over to include the two pitchers, it’s possible that the team uses German as an opener to get him back into major-league form after sitting out for almost a year. It was already anticipated that German would return as a reliever, so having him fulfill an important role that still gives him a low workload to ramp up with could be preferred.
The Yankees toyed with the idea of Happ following an opener near the end of last season, having him enter a game in relief in his final regular season appearance against the Blue Jays. Happ was effective there, lasting five innings and allowing just one run in what became a precursor to him pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason. Should the need arise, the Yankees could turn to the opener-plus-Happ strategy again, and potentially use it throughout the season to limit how much they have to lean on him for innings.
Likewise, whoever wins the fifth starter job could benefit from easing into the majors in a quasi-relief role. One of the frontrunners for the job is Jordan Montgomery, who has experience in the majors but is coming off of Tommy John surgery and could struggle to give the team length as he gets a feel for his command again.
One concern about relying on the opener this year is the amount it taxes the bullpen, especially using it from the beginning of the year. There are two reasons to believe that it won’t be a significant problem, though. First, the team’s improvements in adding Gerrit Cole and getting back Luis Severino should give the ‘pen more rest overall on days that they pitch. Second, a good amount of the candidates for the fifth starter should be able to provide long relief either immediately or in the near future. Armed with these options, it would be a safe bet to say we see the opener again in 2020.