Clarke Schmidt played his role to a T in 2022. Beginning the season in the rotation for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and making a pair of spot-starts early in the year, Schmidt’s injury-necessitated transition to a big league long-relief role midseason was seamless, and he responded as well as a pitcher can be expected to while receiving their first taste of extended big league action at Yankee Stadium. It’s hard to ask for more than the 2.74 ERA he gave them in the heart of the season while averaging nearly two innings per appearance.
Nonetheless, Schmidt still (theoretically) remains a starting pitcher by trade, and a pitcher can only be shuttled between roles for so long before it’s necessary to make a commitment in either direction. In the past, the Yankees have often had the privilege of being able to skip the developmental stage where a pitcher struggles to establish themselves as a starter before letting their stuff play up as a reliever. In many organizations, Jonathan Loaísigia and Michael King would still be working things out in the high minors or the back end of a mediocre MLB rotation, rather than critical back-end bullpen stars.
In another year, taking a similar route with Schmidt might have been an easy decision. Coming off a highly effective year of long relief (34 G, 54.2 IP, 3.12 ERA/3.51 xERA) and supplementing a solid (if flawed) mid-nineties fastball with two above average breaking balls, there’s little doubt that Schmidt could be an effective reliever off the bat, perhaps adopting King’s multi-inning role once the latter is fully healthy and another year removed from throwing for more than an inning or two at a time.
The flexibility required to make that an easy call, however, is more of an open question than in years’ past. The trade of Jordan Montgomery and potential departure of Jameson Taillon have left the Yankees with a bit of a volume problem behind Gerrit Cole. Nestor Cortes is the real deal, but also just blew past his career-high workload — set in 2018, to boot — by nearly 50 innings. Nobody’s doubting Luis Severino’s effectiveness, but we’re now approaching five years since he broke 102 IP or handled a full season’s workload. Frankie Montas surely isn’t as bad as his post-trade 6.35 ERA, but also has a checkered-at-best history of remaining healthy and effective at the same time. In terms of pure talent, that’s one of the best front fours in the game, but in terms of raw innings, it’s not a particularly reliable unit.
That’s to say that even if things go relatively well, it seems likely that rotation depth will be a key issue in 2022, particularly with Luis Gil still on the mend from Tommy John and much of last year’s upper-minors depth having been traded to Oakland in exchange for Montas. The fifth and sixth spots in the rotation are currently slated for Domingo Germán and Schmidt, not exactly an appetizing prospect given the natural rate of pitching attrition and the aforementioned durability concerns. As Brian Cashman hinted at recently, despite the large majority of the artificially-limited offseason budget being held in reserve for a potential Aaron Judge supercontract, it seems likely that rotation reinforcements arrive in some form or another. That begs some important questions about Schmidt, who’s already shown his effectiveness out of the bullpen but also remains tantalizing as a starting prospect in an organization that, as of now, has few internal options near enough to the major leagues to be considered significant for 2023.
Of course, that last part could very well change in the coming months — the Yankees pitching development operation is good enough that it’s reasonable to believe there will simply be more problem-solving pop-up arms next spring in the vein of JP Sears and Ron Marinaccio in 2022. If it doesn’t, however, the coaching staff and front office find themselves a crossroads in managing Schmidt’s development: Take the MLB-ready reliever in front of them, or make use of Schmidt’s final minor league option season and lose out on what seem likely to be above-average MLB innings for the sake of having him stretched out as a starter in Triple-A.
It’s a classic short-view/long-view situation: the departures of Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Miguel Castro and the uncertainty surrounding King’s return have left a not-insignificant innings gap in the Yankees bullpen that Schmidt could go a long way towards filling. Conversely, there’s the simple fact that Cole, Cortes, and Germán are the only starting pitchers currently under contract beyond 2023, leaving Schmidt as a potentially valuable piece for an organization that’s increasingly demonstrated a hardline resistance to shooting past the luxury tax threshold.
It’s not a total binary; starting a season in the bullpen and finishing it in the rotation is far from unheard of, so it’s possible the Yankees could get the best of both worlds. It’s still a difficult proposition, both because the risk/reward calculus becomes steeper when you’re talking about messing with a thing that’s working in the middle of the season, and also because constantly moving between roles typically doesn’t do any favors to a player’s developmental process.
This might not be a debate. The Yankees might already know they want Schmidt in the bullpen, or that he’ll be used as a trade chip to acquire a proven option for the rotation or outfield. But if that’s not the case, one of the bigger internal questions facing the team in 2023 is the uncertainty of whether raising the floor of the fifth or sixth reliever in the bullpen is more valuable than the delayed-benefit of having another high-upside — if still risky and unproven — starting option in the overwhelmingly likely event that the top four- or five in the MLB rotation fail to turn in a full season of work collectively. Presumably the team has told Schmidt what to expect at the outset of next spring so he can spend the winter preparing accordingly. What that expectation is could have ramifications for the team’s roster construction for years beyond this season.