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Deivi García doesn’t have to be great, even if the Yankees need him to be

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The young right-hander is coming up on an interesting 2021, one in which the Yankees may need more from him than he can muster.

New York Yankees v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We’ve reached the new year, and the Yankees haven’t made a move to fortify their rotation. The smart money has them adding *someone* to the staff before Opening Day, but for now, the team’s depth chart puts Gerrit Cole at the top, and a whole lot of question marks on the way down.

Deivi García slots in at number-three in the Yankees’ rotation for now. Given how little Hal Steinbrenner wants to spend this winter, it’s hard to imagine that the young righty enters next season as anything lower than the team’s fourth starter. It’s a heady position for such a young player.

García surely could be up for the task. The top prospect impressed in his debut during the shortened season. Though his ERA ended up somewhat inflated — thanks in large part to one horrible start against the Red Sox — Garcia gave the Yankees a chance to win in five of his six starts. His 4.15 FIP more accurately depicts how well he pitched, as does the .305 wOBA he allowed, a figure that put him on level with Jose Berríos and Mike Clevinger, among others. Perhaps most importantly, García simply didn’t look out of place in the majors, showcasing a fastball that snuck up on hitters and an excellent curveball. García proved that he could get big leaguers out, despite not possessing elite velocity or physical stature.

Expectations will be high for García entering 2021. He flashed real promise in the majors, not to mention during his rapid ascent through the minors in 2019. The team has upped the ante by seemingly slotting him right into the middle of their rotation. At the outset of his career, with his rookie eligibility still intact, there’s a lot riding on García’s success.

To me, that is one half of the dichotomy that defines García’s upcoming season. The Yankees need something real out of him. They need García to eat the innings a third starter on a great team is expected to eat, and they need him to run a pretty decent ERA while doing it. An effective García would go a long way toward shoring up the team’s pitching and angling them towards October.

From the perspective of García’s own development, however, I see 2021 as a much lower-stakes affair. As crucial as García could be to the team’s designs, this next year just isn’t make-or-break for the youngster. García is still so young and inexperienced that a regression or a consolidation year is clearly on the table. And given his youth and talent, such a down year would be just fine.

Consider, first, the ever-pesky projections. FanGraphs pegs García for a 5.09 ERA next season, with a quality strikeout rate but elevated walk and home run totals. We don’t have Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections for next year, but ahead of 2020, PECOTA forecasted a 4.77 DRA (BP’s in-house pitching metric). Given that García nearly matched this mark with his actual DRA, we can reasonably infer that PECOTA will see García as something similar a year later.

At age 22 and with so little high-level experience, an ERA in the upper-fours seems a fair guess at García’s production. It’s easy to forget that García has only started 17 games in the high minors, to go along with the six he recorded in MLB. It’d be entirely normal for an inexperienced starter to struggle as the league acclimates to his game in year two.

Yet a seemingly disappointing season from García would be far from the end of the world for his progression. In fact, I see some potential parallels between the right-hander and another hopeful member of the team’s rotation. Much like García, Luis Severino was once coming off an impressive debut — back in 2015, one in which he was promoted midseason and helped propel the team to a Wild Card berth. Just like García, Severino’s contributions earned him a much greater role on the Yankee staff the following season.

Severino, of course, needed a year of consolidation. He took it on the chin in 2016, flitting between roles and returning to the minors for a time. This all happened after a superior and more complete season than Deivi was allowed in 2020, too. Severino emerged the next year with improved control and a lower home run rate, the team’s full-fledged ace.

Similar examples dot the league’s pitching landscape. Aaron Nola showed great promise in his 2015 rookie campaign before posting a 4.78 ERA in 2016. He spent plenty of time the next few years contending for the NL Cy Young. Luis Castillo showed his talent as a rookie on the Reds, then fell well short of expectations with a 4.30 ERA in his second year. He’s dominated since. Lucas Giolito ran a 2.38 ERA during the year he lost his rookie eligibility, and then was the worst pitcher in the league the following season. His no-hitter in 2020 punctuated his rise back up the ranks.

We’re straying into the realm of anecdotes, but there’s harder science that indicates pitchers peak in their mid-20s. Work by Jeff Zimmerman indicates that pitchers tend to post their best strikeout and walk rates — and likely by extension their best overall performance — between the ages of 24 and 27. This makes intuitive sense. While pitchers see their stuff gradually decline almost from the moment they debut, they’re at their best a few years into their career, when they still possess stuff nearly as good as when they were kids, but combined with experience, with better command, deception, and feel.

All of this is to say that an uneven sophomore follow-up from García wouldn’t portend doom. In some cases, it could even say something positive about his development. The Yankees don’t want García to run a poor ERA in 2021, but if he does so because of factors that are often fixable as pitchers progress (e.g. shaky control, suboptimal pitch mix), while still flashing his best tools (that deceptive delivery and knee-buckling curve), then an uneven season could very well suggest finer things on the horizon.

This makes García’s 2021 awkward, in a way. The Yankees, by leaving their rotation untouched, are thus far treating him like a mid-rotation rock. García has the talent to match those expectations, yet history suggests that he may need time to get where the Yankees need him to go. The Yankees can ill afford a major piece of their rotation faltering, but García might need to just take his lumps before moving on to the next stage of his career.

Obviously, there’s a pretty simple solution to the issue at hand. The Yankees could sign a couple veterans, let García enter spring training as the favorite for the number-five slot, and go from there. If García’s up for the task, great; if he’s not ready, then the team signed insurance in the case that he needed more time to grow.

We all know what’s more probable. The team will cut salary and enter 2021 with García as a major part of their rotation plans, and we’ll all see if he can meet the occasion. It will be no shame on García’s part if he can’t just yet. A long road stretches ahead in García’s career, regardless of if the Yankees need more from him right now than he can give.