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The implications of MLB returning to its 26-man roster plan

Discontinuing the 28-man rosters introduces a crunch for every team. The Yankees’ pitching staff may be hit the hardest.

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

As the second full week of spring training rolls on, the Yankees’ pitching situation is coming into clearer focus. The story all winter centered around the uncertainty in the rotation behind Gerrit Cole, as the Yankees opted for a high-risk, high-reward approach to construct their roster, rather than pursuing safer options on the marker. However, with encouraging initial outings from two of the players added during the offseason — Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon — as well as steady progress from Jordan Montgomery, the rotation is beginning to take shape.

That still leaves the fifth slot in the starting staff unfilled, though the Yankees do have a handful of options competing for that role. Domingo Germán looked sharp in his first spring start, though he is coming off a long suspension layoff and got shelled in the Dominican Winter League. Deivi García looked sharp at times and raw at others in his debut season last year, and surrendered a pair of long balls in his first spring outing. Michael King still has to prove he can make it more than once through the order, and Clarke Schmidt is in the midst of a month-long recovery timetable for an elbow extensor strain.

One must also consider the unique circumstances leading into this season. Many around baseball are concerned about injury risk — particularly to pitchers — when ramping up from a shortened 60-game season to a standard 162-game campaign. Top-of-the-rotation workhorses are looking at a 100+ inning increase over 2020’s workload, which poses serious health and durability risks. Some speculate that teams will ditch the traditional five-man rotation in favor of a six- or even seven-man staff, while others foresee a heavy reliance on spot starts, openers, and bullpen days.

MLB is certainly not helping the situation with its decision to revert back to 26-man rosters. (It was a 25-man roster in 2019, but MLB had planned to add a 26th before COVID changed everything.) The 28-man rosters employed in the 2020 season allowed teams to carry two extra players on the major league roster, which was a wise decision given the possibility of short-notice absence during the pandemic. Despite a near-universal agreement that injury risk will be heightened as MLB returns to a full-length schedule, the league is seemingly unconcerned by these hazards and will not keep the 28-man rosters.

The confluence of the full-length season, the recent layoffs from key pitchers like Kluber, Taillon, and Germán, the relative lack of comparable inning workloads for contributors like Montgomery, García, King, and Schmidt, and the return to 26-man rosters creates an unenviable balancing act for the Yankees to solve. Beyond Cole, it is hard to envision them handing 30 or more starts to any of the rotation options. They are going to need their young pitchers to step up and fill in as many as 10-15 starts, and this is where the 26-man roster truly comes into play.

Imagining a scenario where the Yankees cycle through García, Germán, King, and Schmidt for the “fifth/sixth-starter spots,” this creates quite a conundrum if New York can only roster 26 men. Even with a three-man bench, the Yankees will only be able to carry two of that quartet at a time on the major league roster. Thus, the biggest implication of MLB returning to 26-man rosters will be for the Yankees to prioritize pitchers with minor league options on the MLB roster. That way, they will be free to shuttle the back-of-the-rotation candidates between the Bronx and Triple-A with relative ease (García and Germán perhaps less so, as it appears the pair have the inside track on the final rotation spot[s]).

Going in such a direction would be bad news for the majority of veteran non-roster invitees, whom the Yankees are trying out in spring. Their roster inflexibility would constrain the Yankees’ ability to call up fresh arms from the minors. The other major consequence of New York utilizing a rotating group of rotation candidates is the instability that creates for the players bouncing between levels. Pitchers, as they say, are creatures of habit, so it will be vitally important that García, Germán, King, and Schmidt maintain focus and develop a reliable routine to deal with the added stress of an unstable situation.

Returning to a full season after the pandemic-shortened 2020 was always going to be a difficult task. MLB added an extra hurdle to navigate in reverting to 26-man rosters. Teams guarding against injuries to their pitchers will have to get creative in filling out their rosters with viable arms. Given this state of flux in their pitching staff in addition to the lack of innings or experience for every starter not named Cole, the Yankees might very well need a stroke of genius to finish the season on top of the division.