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Making the case for the Yankees to revisit the opener

With the fifth spot in the Yankees’ rotation still up in the air, the Yankees could go back to the opener well

2019 ALCS Game 6 - New York Yankees v. Houston Astros Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Early returns in spring training indicate that the Yankees can depend upon J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery in the middle of their rotation. However, the Yankees do not have a clearly defined fifth starter until James Paxton returns in May or June. The unconvincing track records in a starting role of the Yankees current fifth starter candidates, in combination with success using the opener last season, point to a similar approach to begin 2020.

Brian Cashman announced last month that the competition for the fifth rotation spot would be between Jordan Montgomery, Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Michael King, and Deivi Garcia. This occurred before Luis Severino’s Tommy John surgery bumped Montgomery to the fourth spot. This presumably leaves the other four players mentioned still in contention for that fifth spot, however it can be argued that using the opener would yield better results than any of those options.

The two pitchers of those four with the most big-league starting experience are Cessa and Loaisiga. Cessa last started a game in 2018, when he made five starts with the team going 1-4. The results do not inspire confidence in his ability to start games, as in only 18 innings pitched, he surrendered three home runs and seven walks, resulting in an ugly 6.50 ERA, 5.05 FIP, and 1.72 WHIP.

Cessa appears better suited coming out of the bullpen, as his numbers as a reliever between 2018 and 2019 are a marked improvement over his performance as a starter. In 107.2 innings pitched, Cessa yielded a more acceptable 4.18 ERA, 4.37 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP. Additionally, he strikes out two more batters per nine innings as a reliever than as a starter.

Loaisiga started four games in 2019, three of which occurred at the beginning of the season. Like Cessa, his performance as a starter is an inauspicious predictor for the upcoming season. In 12 innings pitched, Loaisiga gave up three home runs and seven walks en route to a 6.75 ERA, 5.88 FIP, and 1.83 WHIP.

On the other hand, in 2019 Loaisiga proved he can thrive as a reliever. In 19.2 innings, he pitched to a 3.20 ERA, 4.38 FIP, and 1.27 FIP. Also encouraging, Loaisiga averages about two miles per hour more on his fastball when coming out of the pen versus in a starting role.

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It is important to note the questions about durability surrounding both players. Loaisiga missed significant stints in 2016 due to Tommy John surgery and 2019 with a rotator cuff strain. Cessa’s 2016 season was cut short with a rib injury and he missed a stretch in 2018 with an oblique injury. The Yankees may be able to better preserve their health by using them out of the bullpen.

Three other pitchers who may receive considerations for the fifth starting role are King, Garcia, and Clarke Schmidt, however it may be unwise to shoulder them with that weighty a responsibility. King has pitched a grand total of two innings in the majors and doesn’t have the repertoire to consistently miss big-league bats.

The other two options are intriguing, yet would both benefit from another year of growth in the minors. Garcia struggled with control and the long ball in Triple-A last season. His lone spring-training start represented him in a nutshell. His electric stuff got him off to a hot start striking out multiple batters, but issues with walks and a home run ultimately soured the performance. Schmidt has also looked impressive so far in spring training, in particular sporting a filthy power curveball. However the highest he has reached is Double-A, and he could use the refinement of Triple-A experience.

If the Yankees decide to employ the opener, Chad Green is the obvious candidate for that role, in which he excelled last season. The team went 11-4 in the games he opened. His numbers as an opener versus as a reliever are a mixed bag, as he strikes out more and sports a lower ERA as an opener, but gives up fewer walks and has a lower FIP as a reliever. That being said, the Yankees’ successful track record in games that Green opens should motivate them to use a similar strategy this season.

Loaisiga and Cessa appear the most likely long men to be paired with an opener, given their increased effectiveness coming out of the bullpen relative to starting games. And initial signs in spring training indicate this could be the case, with Cessa and Loaisiga so far being used as multi-inning relievers. They certainly represent massive upgrades over the two pitchers who most frequently followed an opener from last season: Nestor Cortes Jr. and Stephen Tarpley.

The use of the opener would only be a temporary necessity. Assuming the continued health of the existing four starters, the Yankees may need a stopgap for a dozen starts. With both James Paxton and Domingo German returning hopefully in June, the Bombers do not need a quality starter to magically appear. Given their effective use of the opener last season, they can feel confident in doing the same this year.