The Yankees need pitching depth and they need it right now. The bullpen is overworked, key starters and relievers are hurt, and some of the options already seen this year have been less than stellar, to say the least.
Luckily for the Yankees, Domingo Germán is currently on a rehab assignment in Triple-A. On Tuesday, he worked two scoreless innings in relief in his first outing since hitting the IL with right shoulder inflammation in August. With one more rehab assignment to go before he’s activated and a plethora of question marks surrounding the pitching staff, this news begs the question: What will the Yankees do with Germán when he’s back?
There are two competing fields of thought, obviously, and both sides make compelling cases. On the one hand, perhaps Germán should slot back into the starting rotation, as Jameson Taillon is still on the shelf, Gerrit Cole is nursing a bit of a hamstring issue, and Corey Kluber is still just three starts removed from a lengthy absence. On the other hand, Jonathan Loáisiga is still out with a rotator cuff injury, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green have been volatile at best, and the rest of the bullpen seems to be running on fumes, so perhaps a spot as a reliever would make the most sense.
As it stands, there’s really no wrong way to use Germán. In fact, before last night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, Aaron Boone laid out his expectation that he will be using Germán as a reliever when he returns from the IL. Is that really the best route to go, though? Given management’s inability to put its best lineup on the field every day, I’m not so sure this is the best way to use Germán, who could potentially be the Yankees’ X-factor down the stretch. It’s worth considering the feasibility of both options—starter and reliever—to see if we can come to a solution.
As a back-of-the-rotation starter this year, Germán pitched to middling results. In 97 innings, he recorded a 4.45 ERA and a 4.32 FIP while striking out 95 batters.
The most immediate benefit of having Germán return as a starter is crystal clear: The Yankees need more from their starters. Aside from Néstor Cortes Jr. and Jordan Montgomery, the starting rotation is in shambles with Cole and Taillon both nursing injuries of varying severity and Kluber still building up his innings after being on the shelf for roughly three months.
With that being said, though, there simply isn’t enough time left in the season to stretch Germán out as a starter.* An injury of this length would require a few rehab starts and a strict pitch count before getting back into starter reps, but the Yankees simply don’t have the time to do that if they want to make a serious run at the playoffs. But they also can’t afford to rush him back and throw him back into a regular workload right away, because shoulder injuries can quickly become very serious if not given the appropriate time to heal.
*Also of note: Even when healthy earlier in 2021, Germán barely averaged five innings per start, so he might not be contributing much to the rotation anyway.
As a reliever this year, Germán has not been particularly good — albeit in a very limited sample. In six innings across three games, Germán has a 7.50 ERA with seven strikeouts.
The most obvious benefit of slotting Germán into a relief role would be to take the pressure off the overworked arms in the bullpen and give firemen like Green and Chapman a bit of a breather at a critical spot in the season. A hidden benefit to adding Germán as a reliever at this stage in the season is that it would likely mean that Andrew Heaney’s appearances would become much less frequent, as Germán would provide the length Heaney (theoretically) provides out of the bullpen and would hopefully be more effective. I mean, how could he be less effective at this point?
Aside from Germán’s ineffectiveness as a reliever this season (remember, it is a small sample size), the most glaring downside to slotting him into a bullpen role is the fact that this doesn’t help address the desperate need for some length from the starters. While it would be nice for him to provide a couple innings from the bullpen, three or four innings at the start of a game might actually go a lot further to giving everyone on both sides of the staff some much-needed rest.
A Potential Solution
At the beginning of the year, Cortes was used as the pitching equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. As a starter, Cortes has thrown 53.2 innings. As a reliever, he has thrown 19.2 innings. Why can’t Germán be used in a similar role?
Think about it. Germán won’t be stretched out enough to be a starter, but he could absolutely throw two or three innings as an opener. Or, conversely, the Yankees could piggyback him on a start by Luis Gil or Clarke Schmidt (if he gets another shot), where they go four or five and Germán comes in for a couple innings of relief. And when he’s not being used as an opener or a piggyback reliever, he could slot in as a standard reliever in the sixth or seventh inning to give guys like Wandy Peralta and Green a bit of a breather, as they’ve both recently been overworked — and startlingly ineffective, in Green’s case.
I know this organization (including the players) likes its clearly defined roles — it’s one of the reasons why we never formally saw Chapman removed from the closer role despite his struggles — but I think the best move for the Yankees down the stretch would be to add some flexibility to Germán’s role. If he comes back even remotely effective, he would be a massive boost for both sides of a Yankees pitching staff that desperately needs help.