Back in January, I wrote about how the Yankees had prioritized upside in their offseason moves, trading for Jameson Taillon and signing Corey Kluber. Both were high-risk moves with the potential for big upside, but as I wrote, the Yankees were gambling on both health and effectiveness. In the comments of that article — and broader Yankee discourse — there were a lot of fans that were okay with that gamble, and the Yankees came into the season projected to have a top three pitching staff in baseball.
Ten weeks into the season, we can start to parse the decisions made to raise the ceiling of the pitching staff, without as solid a floor. Gerrit Cole has been excellent, just as we all figured he would be. Domingo Germán has had a strong start to the season. Corey Kluber threw a no-hitter, probably the single brightest highlight of the year for the club so far. Of course, a start later, Kluber re-injured his right shoulder, the shoulder that held him down to just one inning of work last year. He’s out until late July at best.
Jameson Taillon has been awful. After recording just a single out on Sunday against the Phillies, the right-hander sports a 5.78 ERA, even if improved strikeout numbers see his FIP much lower. It’s hard to get too excited about that growth in strikeout rate, however — his 25-percent strikeout rate sounds impressive off the top, but that’s only about four points better than league average. Taillon’s FIP and xFIP approach league average as well, but both are by far the highest marks of his career. Some of this performance is luck or sequencing-driven, some of it is on-the-job learning as he moves off the two-seamer and towards the four-seamer, but the high upside a lot of people thought we’d get from Taillon hasn’t materialized.
This combination of Kluber’s injury and Taillon’s ineffectiveness play a big part in the team’s declining playoff odds, although it must be said that a bad offense is the biggest culprit. Still, Taillon’s Depth Charts projections peg him for a full half-win less than at the start of the season, and Kluber’s drops off a full win. When the team is needing to claw its way back to contention, those potential wins matter. Yes, the team has to hit, but regression on the pitching side deepens the already-present hole.
The tough part for the Yankees is that it’s unclear where they can go from here. There’s nothing they can really do about Kluber; he was pitching well, then he got hurt. The only real option is to wait for him to come back and see if that good pitching returns with him, and unfortunately, his best-case return timetable means the club isn’t going to have much time (if any) to engage a contingency in the trade market should Klubot be less than his output at the start of the year.
At the very least, you can see the impact losing Kluber — the de facto No. 2 starter — has had over the past few weeks:
In May, when Kluber was about as good a pitcher as you can be — 2.27 ERA while averaging more than six innings a start — pairing him with Gerrit Cole gave the Yankees a terrific 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. It also critically bought time for players like Taillon to get it together, which we’ll return to in a moment.
Now, with no Kluber, the lack of rotation depth is being exposed. Taillon, meanwhile, does have a minor league option, and for a while I thought it would be worthwhile sending him to Scranton to work on his fastball and slider:
You don’t just go from throwing four-seam/two-seam at pretty much the same rates, to four-seam exclusively. That’s a tough transition to make, and doubly so when you’re rebuilt your mechanics. In an ideal world, it would probably be beneficial for Taillon to make three or four starts at Triple-A. He could figure out both how to work with the four-seam and what he wants to do with breaking and offspeed pitches, since by his own admission, he doesn’t fully trust his secondary offerings.
The trouble is that there’s nobody else to send in. Jordan Montgomery has actually gotten better as the season’s gone on, but Germán is sporting a 6.60 ERA in three June starts. Deivi García has walked 19.8 percent of the batters he’s faced in Triple-A. Regression is coming like a train for Michael King, who’s giving up harder contact, walking more and striking out fewer than last season. Luis Severino strained his groin over the weekend, raising questions about when he’ll even be able to join the team. Unfortunately for the Yankees, it looks like Taillon’s going to have to work out his troubles on the major league mound.
Gerrit Cole is going to end up at or near the top of the Cy Young ballot. Maybe Germán rights the worrying trends of his season, and Montgomery keeps up his improvement. There are still two holes in this rotation, and with a team struggling to score runs, pitching regression really hurts right know. This is the downside to a high-risk offseason move, or rather, two high-risk moves.
We spent a lot of time wondering over the winter wondering what would happen if Kluber got hurt, or Taillon couldn’t pull it together coming off his second Tommy John surgery. We had two months of a rotation that was performing to those high-upside expectations, but as June has rolled around, Kluber got hurt, and Taillon can’t pull it together.