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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Domingo Germán

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It’s not clear to what extent the right-hander will be prepared to help the team’s rotation this year.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Domingo German didn’t play major league baseball in 2020. He didn’t because at the end of 2019, MLB suspended him for 81 games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. German served 18 games of his suspension closing out the 2019 campaign, and when COVID-19 ultimately cut last season down to 60 games, it became clear he would go close to two years with stepping between the lines at Yankee Stadium.

Now, in early 2021, German is a favorite to make the team but still has work to do if he wants to take the field once more. His road just to get here has been winding, as German twice made cryptic social media posts that made it appear as if he was retiring. His presence at camp hasn’t been without controversy, with Zack Britton becoming his first teammate to speak out, stating plainly “I don’t think he owes anything to me. I think it’s off the field stuff that he needs to take care of. Sometimes, you don’t get to control who your teammates are.”

And beyond the more important stuff, there’s the trivial matter of a fifth-starter race. The Yankees have a clear top-four in the rotation, and based on recent track record, Deivi Garcia should be the leader in the clubhouse for the fifth spot. German faces a tall task, one in which he must shake off a year and a half of rust and recapture his early-2019 form if he wants to secure a prominent role on the team’s pitching staff.

2020 Stats: Did not play

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 104 IP, 4.56 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9, 1.3 fWAR

His 2019 form is starting to feel like a distant memory. That said, Germán truly was very effective for the Yankees at that time, sprinting out of the gate for a 2.60 ERA and .549 OPS allowed across his first 10 starts. He regressed over the latter half of the season, but still finished the year with strong numbers, in the form of a 111 ERA+ and 153 strikeouts in 143 innings. For most of 2019, it looked the Yankees had uncovered a quality arm they could pencil into the middle of their rotation for years to come.

But that was two summers, a suspension, and a lost season ago. Most recently, Germán got some reps in the Dominican Winter League, and got hit pretty hard. For what winter league stats are worth, Germán made five appearances and gave up 13 runs in 16.1 innings.

That rusty winter stretch, along with the shaky finish to his breakout 2019, casts doubt on the extent Germán can contribute at the highest level. These are just two markers, but a look at Germán’s rolling swinging strike rate and hard contact get at the heart of his struggles as his last season moved along:

FanGraphs

As the season progressed, Germán generated fewer whiffs and gave up worse contact when he yielded balls in play. His four-seamer and curve, the pitches he makes his money with, got crushed for wOBA figures in excess of .360 during the month of August. Small samples abound, but the years that have passed since German was last a good pitcher don’t bode well for his chances of quickly retaining form and contributing in 2021.

The projections seem to take a reasonable stance and put Germán right at his career averages. The depth chart projections above peg his ERA and FIP marks each within six points of his career figures, while PECOTA similarly projects a 4.51 DRA. That seems fair. Given the combination of Germán’s talent and all the time he’s been away from the game, something close to average looks a fair prediction.

Even with middling production likely on the way and a clubhouse that says he’s “on thin ice”, the Yankees will probably give Germán every chance to reestablish himself. I doubt they’ll do so because they so thoroughly believe in second chances, or because they know zero tolerance policies for domestic abusers can harm domestic violence victims. The Yankees will hope Germán can bounce back in 2021 simply because he’s 28, has a live arm, and is under team control for four more seasons. Clubs just don’t give up on in-prime arms that throw hard when they can retain them so easily and cheaply.

We’ll see soon enough whether Germán can help the big league club on the field, and whether the Yankees trust he’ll stay out of trouble off of it. From the sound of it, he’ll have to walk a careful line to earn his teammates’ trust back, and wind back the clock a couple years to earn a spot in the rotation.