Remember the opener? After the Tampa Bay Rays employed it to great effect early in 2018, the opener took Major League Baseball by storm. During the latter half of the 2018 season, the Dodgers, Athletics, Twins, and Rangers made extensive use of the opener to deal with depleted pitching staffs, and both the Athletics and Brewers even used them in the postseason. Although they used it just once in 2018, the Yankees paired Chad Green with Nestor Cortes, Chance Adams, and David Hale 15 times in 2019 to compensate for injuries to the starting rotation.
The opener has largely fallen out of day-to-day use throughout baseball, although some teams (most notably the Rays) still use them from time to time. The 2021 Yankees, for example, used Wandy Peralta in the role on August 6th and Lucas Luetge on August 11th, turning to bullpen games only when Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and Corey Kluber were all on the shelf at the same time. At this point, the opener has for the most part failed as a regular part of most teams’ starting rotations, and has instead become a desperate tactic for teams in dire needing of pitching depth.
And through their own fault, the Yankees are on the precipice of running out of pitching.
Had you told me in the middle of July that the Yankees would see their starting pitching depth taxed, I would not have been all that surprised. They had been extremely healthy — Luis Gil, who was out for the season, was their only major injury — and a healthy pitching staff is not something that you see for a full season unless you’re playing MLB The Show with injuries turned off. On top of that, Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon each had extensive injury histories, while Nestor Cortes was well on his way to the highest innings total of his career. Injuries were bound to happen.
And so, naturally, the Yankees did the one thing that every contending team does at the trade deadline when they need pitching: they empty the cupboard of all the major starting pitching prospects in the upper minors (JP Sears, Ken Waldichuck, Luis Medina, and Hayden Wesneski) and sent Jordan Montgomery to the St. Louis Cardinals for a center fielder in a walking boot.
Although he’s struggled so far as a member of the Yankees, I’m not going to complain about the decision to acquire Frankie Montas from the Oakland A’s, as they did need to add another starter with front-of-the-rotation ability. I do want to highlight, however, that it was a calculated risk trading away Sears, Waldichuck, Medina, and Wesneski all at the same time. At the time, the ideal world where everybody stays healthy looked pretty good for the Yankees — a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Frankie Montas, Jordan Montgomery, and Jameson Taillon would have best-in-baseball potential, while Clarke Schmidt and Domingo Germán would serve as rotation depth and Luis Severino would be waiting in the wings for a call-up when eligible to return from the 60-day IL in the middle of September.
From the moment it was announced that the Yankees were sending Montgomery to the Cardinals, the picture became muddled. Germán slotted into Monty’s spot, and although he’s filled it well, that left Schmidt as the only trustworthy piece left to make a spot start. Then Nestor Cortes hit the shelf a week ago, leaving the Yankees with no obvious other candidates ... a situation that soon looked dire when a line drive hit Jameson Taillon in the forearm on Tuesday, knocking him out of the game.
Although the reports on Taillon were better than expected and it seems that he has avoided a serious injury, it suddenly raised the question: Who would have replaced him in the rotation if he needed to miss time? Who’s next?
Right now, there’s no obvious answer. The only starting pitcher above Single-A left on the 40-man roster is Deivi García, a 23-year-old former top prospect who has not pitched well since 2020, who struggled so badly this season he was demoted to Double-A, and who will be pitching out of the bullpen in Triple-A Scranton down the stretch. At this point, I’m not even sure the Yankees consider him a starting pitcher anymore, and wouldn’t be surprised if they are hoping for him to become another (albeit shorter) Dellin Betances.
Outside the 40-man roster, the pickings continue to be slim. Ryan Weber has impressed in a trio of appearances at the big league level this season, but he doesn’t exactly have a lengthy track record and has made just 16 starts at the major league level. Recently-acquired Chi Chi Gonzalez has a career 5.72 ERA across six seasons and has allowed eight runs in 11 big league innings this year. Prospect Matt Krook has had his share of ups and downs this season, and likely profiles more as a reliever than a starter.
It’s not exactly an inspiring group of options, that’s for sure. Because of this, the Yankees would be better served using them not as starters, but as the bulk guys behind an opener. The main point of an opener, if you recall, is to shut down the top of the order in the first inning with a reliever, giving the follower a lower chance of seeing the top of the order a third time. It’s far from a perfect scheme, of course — not all relievers are accustomed to pitching so early in the game, and not all starters are used to coming out of the bullpen (although it should be noted that all the available options have worked as relievers). At this point, however, would you rather have García or Weber face, for example, Luis Arraez and Carlos Correa three times, or would you rather Ron Marinaccio or Greg Weissert have one go at it?
To that, I say, “If it comes to it, bring me the opener.”