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We could have seen the Yankees’ pitching woes coming

The first two weeks of the season have revealed the risk of downside when all you buy is upside.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I’m writing this just as Manuel Margot takes Jordan Montgomery deep to give the Rays a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning. Truth be told, Monty hasn’t pitched all that poorly through four innings, and Gerrit Cole pitches on Sunday. Yankee fans can look forward to two decent starts in two straight days.

That’s been few and far between so far this season, though, with the dominant storyline being just how putrid the Yankee rotation has been outside of their $324 million man. Cole’s first three starts have been as good as any in franchise history. Outside of the ace, though, the rest of the rotation boasts an ERA of 6.44 after Saturday.

The worst part of the terrible first three trips through the rotation is we all could have, and should have, seen it coming. I wrote back in January about the offseason strategy of maximizing upside, and how the Yankees were filling the rotation slots of James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka with a foursome of arms that threw just a single inning in 2020. The results, albeit still early, have been what we could have expected from a rotation with so may question marks.

Yes, Corey Kluber is historically a slow starter, posting worse numbers in April than any other month every single season:

Now, yes, maybe you expect Kluber to get better the more that he pitches, but as I said yesterday, we’re dealing with the law of large numbers. Kluber could improve by more than 100 points of OPS against, which would be a huge nominal improvement. A .977 OPS against is still basically Trea Turner’s 2020, though, so even significant improvement from Kluber could end with him being Not Good.

Jameson Taillon, who I’ve been really high on, has looked every bit the reclamation project he is. The stuff and command has been impressive — his K-BB%, which I consider the single best indicator of a pitcher’s skill — is second-best in the rotation behind only Cole. The problems for Taillon have centered around the fact that when his stuff does get touched, it flies — he’s allowed three home runs in just over eight innings of work — and the Yankees are still unsure how deep he can work into games.

I actually expect that Taillon will improve as the season goes on, it’s just a question of pace, when the Yankees trust him to work five or more innings, and how many relief innings have to be eaten up before that happens. Contrast that with Kluber, who hasn’t shown the same signs that he’s pitching better than the early returns, or good heavens, Domingo Germán.

Germán has continued the same problems that plagued him in 2019: a ridiculous hard-hit rate brought about by a fastball that just isn’t good enough to fool major league hitters. He’s down at the alternate site for at least half the week, but unless he’s drastically improved spin or deception while down there, it’s hard to see positive regression from that rotation slot either. And there’s no point even discussing Luis Severino until there is something to discuss.

Again, we are 15 games into the season. Gerrit Cole has been terrific, and Jordan Montgomery has been solid. The Yankees have almost half of a good rotation, but I think it’s fair to start and critique the offseason strategy, the hyperfocus on value and upside. Yes, the Yankees will play better than they’ve played as the season goes on. Yes, it’s still likely they hit on one of the handful of guys they bet on — but that still leaves 40 percent of a rotation up in the air. We’re starting to see the value of having a Masahiro Tanaka in the rotation, or of being a little irrational and bidding on one of the big trade arms that moved around the game over the winter. The floor is lava, and the Yankees have been burned early.