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Rotation depth is weak link in Yankees’ playoff hopes

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More should have been done at the trade deadline to build the starting rotation and keep the team in the hunt.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

At the trade deadline, the Yankees made two exciting moves to improve their floundering offense by acquiring Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo, in particular, was key to the team’s sweep of the last-place Marlins in his first series with his new team. Competent left-handed hitting should lead to more wins. Yet the team’s path to a playoff position will continue to be stymied by the front office’s failure to address the lack of starting pitching depth.

Brian Cashman did add left-hander Andrew Heaney from the Angels, but his season to date suggests he’ll bring more of the okay-to-average performance that has left the Yankees fighting for the second Wild Card position rather than a true boost to the rotation. If he pitches to his 4.05 FIP he could be serviceable, but his 88 ERA+ doesn’t inspire much confidence; those numbers are only going up after getting lit up last night. The most likely scenario appears to be that Heaney could be a decent innings eater—someone good to have, but certainly not the piece to make any other teams scared of their playoff rotation.

The staff’s top three of Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and Jameson Taillon have been generally solid, although Cole has struggled recently against the Red Sox and Rays and Taillon needs to get through the sixth inning more consistently. Corey Kluber was signed to fill out the back of the rotation, but he’s missed most of the season, and Domingo Germán’s trip to the injured list on Saturday only worsened the problem. The Yankees were one day out of the trade deadline and had as many healthy starters as they did going in.

An injury to Taillon or Montgomery at this point of the season would be catastrophic to the team’s playoff odds, and considering that both are Tommy John survivors coming off the shortened 2020 season, the possibility of that happening can hardly be discounted. Cole getting hurt could have them dead in the water, and he could miss time on the COVID IL after his recent positive test. Nestor Cortes Jr.’s ceiling is limited, Michael King is injured, Deivi García and his ERA north of seven in Triple-A aren’t helping anytime soon, and while Luis Gil has potential, he’s only made eight up-and-down starts above Double-A.

The cavalry could be coming at the end of August or the beginning of September in the forms of Kluber and Luis Severino. The former ace Severino is absolutely vital to the team’s end-of-season push if he can display the talent he showed when he last pitched in 2019. That’s heavily dependent on his health, though, and pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery are known to require some time to get right when they return to the field. But by the time he returns, barring a stunning reversal of their season-long malaise, the Yankees will have no time — it looks like they’ll be in a fight with at least the Red Sox/Rays, Blue Jays, and A’s for the Wild Card slots for the rest of the season. If he has multiple short starts where he struggles with command and the bullpen has to cover too many of his innings, Severino could hurt the playoff push more than he helps.

And if the team wants to win the pennant, one way or the other they’ll have to make it through the Red Sox, who are fifth in MLB in OPS and and seventh in wRC+. The Sox have tortured their rivals all season, and the pitching staff will have to prove capable of silencing them if the Yanks want to advance or even stay in the race.

Despite any recent struggles, Cole is and will remain the obvious go-to for a potential Wild Card game. However, the team simply cannot win a playoff series with Gerrit Cole as the only starter they can rely on. If Severino is healthy and right, the two will make a formidable one-two punch, as the front office was surely envisioning they would for years when they signed Cole to his contract, but the odds of him returning to form within a few weeks are probably low.

The rotation is plugging away for now, but will remain one sore elbow away from collapsing for the rest of the season. Impact starters are always expensive at the trade deadline, but the failure of the front office to truly shore up the team’s depth deeply limits their playoff chances.