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Pondering Clarke Schmidt’s short-term future with the Yankees

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The right-hander pitched three innings at the Yankees Florida Complex League on Monday, and the results were extremely encouraging.

Miami Marlins v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Remember when Yankees’ right-hander Clarke Schmidt injured his elbow in February and he said he expected to come back “soon”? Yeah. That’s why pitchers don’t treat their own injuries, in case you were wondering.

Schmidt was diagnosed with a common extensor strain following an MRI, and while his ulnar collateral ligament is fine (no Tommy John, phew), he has missed the whole season to this point after reporting renewed discomfort in April, depriving the Yankees of a very promising young starter.

Yet, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for him and the Bombers. After a long road back, which included setbacks, rest, throwing sessions, bullpens, and simulated games, Schmidt started a rehab assignment at the Yankees Florida Complex League on Monday.

The early results are extremely encouraging. In three innings of work, the righty struck out five hitters and allowed just one hit, facing the minimum thanks to a groundball double play.

Schmidt seemed to be in complete control against the Rookie-level hitters — and importantly, that’s close to his usual velocity. The difficulty of the opposition may not mean much by itself, but the primary takeaways here, the ones that can be considered extremely encouraging, are that he made it through the outing healthy and that the Yankees seem to be building him up as a starter.

Of course, that’s what he is: a starter. After all, he started 25 out of his 27 minor league games after being drafted as a starter out of South Carolina. However, he started just one game for the big league club in 2020 while making two relief appearances. The Yankees’ bullpen seems to be the one area that could use an impact arm the most, but if he is fully stretched out, dominating, and over his injury, there is no reason why the team can’t try him in the rotation if there is ever the need. He should clear a few more hurdles, though.

After spending the whole season on the injured list (with elbow problems, no less), it would be unfair to expect Schmidt to contribute at some point in the second half. The Yankees can, however, hope he encounters no setbacks in his road to full health and can be available to help at some point in August or, most likely, September.

Clarke Schmidt’s return to full health means that the Yankees could have another option to start games in the last month of the season. But it should be just that, an option, not a certainty, for lots of reasons: he needs to complete his rehab assignment, he needs to build up more stamina, and there are questions about whether he is ready for the bigs or not. Remember that he skipped Triple-A altogether before making his MLB debut last season, and that debut was 6.1 underwhelming innings; with strikeouts, yes, but also with walks and a 7.11 ERA.

Perhaps he could contribute more in a multi-inning relief role, then resume his path as a starter with a normal offseason. But the Yankees appear eager to stretch him out as a starter to see how far he can go in 2021.

Does Schmidt have the talent to help the Yanks this year? Absolutely. He mastered High-A and had three very good starts in Double-A (2.37 ERA, 2.01 FIP) in 2019 before those 6.1 frames in MLB. But he may need more seasoning in the minors first. If he shows he is over his elbow issues and dominates Triple-A hitters, then he may force the Yankees’ hand. He should, and most likely will, develop at his own pace.