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The Yankees’ starting rotation is more than one addition away from being rescued

It will take more than Yamamoto to fix this depleted bunch.

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Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Entering 2023 season, there was the assumption that the Yankees rotation would challenge for best starting five in baseball. On paper, a staff of Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodón, Luis Severino, Nestor Cortes and a combination of Clarke Schmidt and Domingo Germán could go toe-to-toe with the other elite units around the league. Seven-and-a-half months later and we know that did not come to pass.

The group as a whole finished the season in the bottom-third of the league in fWAR (9.2) while narrowly avoiding the bottom-third in ERA (4.44) and FIP (4.50). Cortes, Rodón, and Severino combined to pitch just 217 innings, the latter pair finishing the season below replacement level. This fact plus the wave of pitchers departing the organization in the last 18 months means we can no longer assume the rotation will be a strength of the team, and therefore appropriate action is required.

We’ll start with the departures on the major league side. Severino and Frankie Montas became free agents, as did Germán after the team outrighted him and he elected free agency. Michael King headlined the package sent to San Diego for Juan Soto and Trent Grisham, joined by Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez following their successful debuts deputizing in the rotation. It’s also worth remembering that the Yankees traded away Jordan Montgomery for Harrison Bader at the 2022 trade deadline, though under this evaluation it’s a moot point as he reached free agency this winter.

There’s an alarming amount of uncertainty in the rotation after Cole. After the 2023 AL Cy Young winner, the Yankees’ most valuable starting pitcher was Clarke Schmidt and his 4.64 ERA and 1.8 fWAR — perfectly serviceable for your fifth starter but unacceptable as the second-best performance out of the rotation for a team with playoff aspirations. In fact, all starters not named Cole combined to go 32-46 with a 5.06 ERA and just 4.0 fWAR in 611.2 innings.

It speaks volumes of the state of the Yankees rotation that an eight-start sample at the end of last season in which King pitched to a 1.88 ERA was enough to position him as the second arm in the rotation behind Cole. Such is the sky-high variance in the outcomes they could receive from two of the expected cornerstones of the rotation — Rodón and Cortes. We don’t know how long it will take for the Yankees’ marquee signing of last winter to shake off the rust and rediscover his form, while with Cortes, shoulder injuries are capital-S Scary for pitchers, particularly to the rotator cuff.

That’s not all they have to worry about. The minor league pitching depth behind the projected five major league starters has taken an almighty blow over the last 18 months, the Yankees essentially emptying the cupboard of young arms in (mostly failed) trades for established MLB players. Starting with the trade for Andrew Benintendi, the Yankees have dealt away T.J. Sikkema, Beck Way, Luis Medina, JP Sears, Hayden Wesneski, Ken Waldichuk, Greg Weissert, Richard Fitts, Nicholas Judice, and MiLB Pitching Prospect of the Year Drew Thorpe, while also seeing Mitch Spence, Matt Sauer, and Carson Coleman depart via the Rule 5 Draft.

For any other organization, such a mass exodus of minor league arms might be enough to cripple the system. On the one hand, it’s commendable that the organization has created such a successful pitching development department that they have an effective conveyor belt bringing arms to the majors. On the other hand, New York has to navigate around injuries in the starting rotation every year, and while guys like Brito and Vásquez performed admirably when thrust into action, I’m sure the team would love the luxury of better tested depth to fill in for the rotation than a pair of guys making their major league debuts. As it stands, the Yankees currently have Luis Gil and Yoendrys Gómez as the first line of reinforcements should a starter go down, the duo hardly inspiring confidence.

FanGraphs currently projects Cole, Rodón, Schmidt, Cortes, and Clayton Beeter to fill out the 2024 rotation. That’s right, Clayton Beeter, he of the 4.94 ERA and 5.76 FIP in 71 innings with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2023. The Yankees are in trouble if the return for dumping Joey Gallo on the Dodgers is starting games. Adding another another impact starter, if not two, becomes the most pressing priority for the rest of the offseason.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto was recently posted by his NPB club and instantly sits atop the heap of free agent starters. Following Shohei Ohtani’s eye-watering deal with the Dodgers, speculation has placed Yamamoto’s price tag in excess of $300 million. That’s a price the Yankees absolutely must be prepared to pay, with the understanding that to field a championship contender, the investment in pitching will likely need to soar beyond that figure.

Don’t get me wrong, Yamamoto would go a long way to curing the ails of the Yankees rotation. Eno Sarris of The Athletic recently compared him to Kevin Gausman when trying to project his performance in MLB, and I’m sure the Yankees would snap your hand off for that prospect. It’s just that the Yankees find themselves in the position — whether by subtraction or underperformance of pitchers already rostered — of needing to secure Yamamoto’s signature, rather than approaching him as a luxury wish list item, and even then it might not be enough to just add the Japanese superstar.

No, this season presents the Yankees an opportunity to rebuild their rotation from the ground up, building in resiliency should guys like Rodón and Cortes fail to hit their projections. While the free agent and trade markets for starters remains robust, it would behoove the Yankees to move with some urgency as we’ve already seen impact starters and reliable, established hurlers come off the board. Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Seth Lugo have all signed multi-year pacts while veterans like Kenta Maeda, Kyle Gibson, Nick Martinez, Wade Miley, and Lance Lynn have found new homes at affordable, short-term prices. Montgomery and Blake Snell remain alongside Yamamoto as the best available free agents, but they and the rest of the free agent crop won’t go unsigned forever.