The news no Yankee fan wanted to hear trickled in yesterday afternoon. It had been a tense 18 hours, as Corey Kluber was forced to exit the game against the Blue Jays the night prior after only three innings. Considering he was coming off a no-hitter and in his first season after healing from a teres major tear, we were rightfully worried.
Initial news allowed us to rest easy, but the reprieve was short-lived. Fears were confirmed with Jack Curry of YES Network reporting that an MRI had identified a sub-scapular strain that would sideline the 35-year-old for a minimum of eight weeks.
Boone just acknowledged that Kluber will miss a minimum of 8 weeks (4 weeks of not throwing and 4 weeks of building his arm back up).— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) May 26, 2021
This is a devastating blow for a Yankees rotation that was the surprise success of the season and frankly the biggest factor in keeping the Bombers and their scuffling offense only a game out of the division lead. Aided by the no-hitter against the Rangers, Kluber was hands-down the second-best starter for the Yankees, and looked like he had recaptured some of his Cy Young form from his days in Cleveland. The patented Kluberball has been as sharp as ever while the changeup emerged as a legitimate strikeout weapon. In ten starts and 53.1 innings, he owned a 3.04 ERA, 3.76 FIP, and 55 strikeouts.
Replacing Kluber’s spot in the rotation will be a tall task. The front office’s seemingly strict adherence to remaining below the CBT threshold paired with the reluctance to part with high-valued prospects makes it unlikely that reinforcements will come via trade. Instead, the Yankees will likely look to cover Kluber’s absence from within.
Deivi Garcia will make a start in Detroit this weekend, which Boone says was planned before the Kluber news. Michael King also a possibility for a start.— Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) May 26, 2021
The Yankees’ top pitching prospect is the most likely candidate to step in the rotation. After all, García was already scheduled for a call-up to start a game in the upcoming Tigers series. He made one start against the Orioles on April 26th, surrendering two runs in four innings before being promptly optioned back to Triple-A. This time, it appears he will be up for a prolonged stay with the big league club.
The biggest concern with García has been his propensity to lose the zone, as he walked over 11 percent of batters across three levels in the minors from 2018 to 2019. He appeared to have ironed these issues out after reaching the majors in 2020, carrying a measly 4.1 percent walk rate in 34.1 innings. Unfortunately, it seems his control issues have returned with a vengeance in 2021.
As Andres pointed out yesterday, García has struggled to throw strikes. In 19.2 innings between the majors and Triple-A, he carries an unsustainable 17.2 percent walk rate — the worst single-season mark of his career. García can usually mitigate the elevated walks with high strikeout totals — he struck out over a third of the batters he faced in the minors — which is why it’s concerning that wipeout stuff has not translated to the majors. If his strikeout rate continues to hover at 22.5 percent in the big leagues, I worry about how he will fare for an extended stretch in the rotation.
Before this season, King set a goal of 100 innings in a Swiss Army-type role. He understood the value of those innings given the concerns of starters ramping up to a full season inning load after the truncated 2020 season. “I want to make an impact on the team,” he told Bryan Hoch. “My goal is 100, so I don’t care if they’re starts, piggybacks, long relief, whatever it is.”
Now that Kluber is out, the path to those innings becomes clearer. The Yankees have long hoped that he could establish himself as a full-time starter, and he gets his opportunity to earn their trust. He has acquitted himself well in seven relief appearances, pitching to a 2.29 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 19.2 innings including a sparkling six innings of one-hit relief against the Blue Jays on April 4th. The question is whether that effectiveness will carry over into a starting role. His FIP is identical to his xFIP (4.01), so what you see is what you get.
In terms of raw stuff, King has the weapons to get big league batters out. His fastball has ticked up a mile per hour. He added a cutter as his primary put-away pitch. His sinker exhibits the ninth-most horizontal movement as a function of velocity in the bigs while his changeup has the 21st-most horizontal movement and carries a 50 percent whiff rate.
The real test will be whether he can harness the stuff on a consistent and effective basis. On one hand, he has cut his launch angle in half and is inducing a career-best 52.7 percent groundball rate. On the other, he is getting hit the hardest of his three seasons, with career-worsts in exit velocity (88 mph), barrel rate (9.1 percent), and hard hit rate (43.6 percent). As long as he can keep the ball on the ground, the loud contact should not hurt him.
We have seen the Yankees deploy bullpen games to varying degrees of success over the last few years. I would hope the Yankees go a different route than Nick Nelson, as they can ill-afford to spot teams an early two run lead. Instead, we could see Chad Green get another runout as the opener, considering the team went 11-4 in games that he opened in 2019.
Then the question becomes who they roll out as the bulk inning reliever. Jonathan Loaisiga is the most reliable option, but he has become the team’s second-most trusted high-leverage reliever and it’s hard to see them wasting him in the middle innings. Luis Cessa is having his best season in pinstripes and has covered bulk innings in the past, but forgive me for not being overly enthused with that option. Lucas Luetge could be a dark horse candidate, as he presents an intriguing change of pace pitching style following the hard-throwing Green.
Whichever route the Yankees choose — García, King, bullpen games, or some combination of the three — it will be nigh-on impossible to replicate the production they are losing with Kluber’s absence. As long as the Yankees can tread water every fifth day while they await Kluber’s return, they still have a decent chance of keeping up in what promises to be a fierce divisional race.