The 2017 season figures to be a transition year for the Yankees, but one that will be made on their terms. Despite the obvious youth movement, Hal Steinbrenner has made it abundantly clear that he still wants to field a competitive team during this period. There will be no tanking in the Bronx. That’s why the front office spent $99 million this offseason already on Matt Holliday and Aroldis Chapman. The team is adding reinforcements to ensure marginal competitiveness.
These efforts may have been in vain, however, as the starting rotation is in dire need of upgrading. With the price of pitching too high for Brian Cashman, it appears that the Yankees will go ahead with in-house options. Except Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda are the only locks to make the rotation. A combination of Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, or other minor league options will round out the starting rotation. That group leaves a lot to be desired.
Ben recently looked at Severino’s future in the rotation. He’s actually shown the capacity to succeed in the big leagues. Prospects such as Dietrich Enns and Chance Adams figure to be further down on the depth chart this year. That leaves Cessa, Green, and Mitchell, who could spend extended periods of time in the rotation. While that might sound exciting, the results could be dreary. While each brings some upside, they also have a number of pitfalls that are worth examining in detail.
The 24-year-old is the most well-rounded of the trio. He’s as close to a complete starting pitcher as one can expect. He has four pitches that he uses regularly. They aren’t just show-me pitches. His slider and changeup have potential to be legitimate out pitches, too.
His numbers are pretty remarkable considering he’s a converted shortstop. Cessa’s diverse repertoire means that he doesn’t have much of a platoon split. These factors lead one to believe that he can remain a starting pitcher.
The trouble with Cessa, however, is his propensity to give up home runs. He posted a sky-high 2.09 HR/9 rate across 70.1 innings in 2016. Of course, there’s some sample size noise in there, but underlying evidence suggests actual flaws in Cessa’s pitching plan. Hitters have done the most damage against his fastball and curveball, and that seems to be a location problem.
Cessa left too many of those pitches in the center of the strike zone. They’re on a tee for hitters. He worked around that problem last year, pitching to a 4.35 ERA with a 5.52 FIP. That was serviceable considering he was bounced around between the bullpen and the rotation. This is a problem that will need to be corrected if the Yankees plan to use him as their No. 5 starter.
Green, 25, came over as the second piece in the Justin Wilson trade. Many questioned whether he had the tools to remain a starting pitcher at the time of the deal. After a brief major league cameo that saw Green post a 4.73 ERA with a 5.34 FIP, those questions still exist.
Unlike Cessa, Green has a limited arsenal. He’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He works primarily with a fastball and a slider, while occasionally flashing a cutter and a changeup. However, neither pitch are used enough to provide him with the arsenal a lesser prospect like him needs to succeed.
This lack of a changeup resulted in a dramatic platoon split in 2016. Green held right-handers to a .253/.311/.394 slash line, but it jumps to .287/.351/.663 against lefties. If Green can’t develop a changeup then his future as a starting pitcher is in jeopardy. Left-handed batters would continue to devour him.
Green also has a question mark surrounding his health. He was shut down in early September with a sprained UCL and flexor tendon in his right elbow. He also strained his flexor tendon, too. Thankfully these injuries weren’t too severe, and he’s on target to have a normal spring training. Nevertheless, elbow injuries are major red flags. His elbow is worth monitoring.
The tricky part with Green is that he might have the most potential of the trio. His raw stuff is impressive. He throws hard and maintains that velocity throughout the game.
When considering that skill, it makes sense that he could flash brilliance. In fact, he pitched the best game of the season according to game score. Green struggled more often than not, however. Without a changeup to neutralize lefties, his future is likely in the bullpen.
Mitchell, also 25, is a power arm. He works with an electric fastball and a hammer curveball. Like Green, however, he lacks a changeup. He threw the pitch only 3.35% of the time in 2016. Mitchell’s platoon split on the season was negligent, but the absence of a changeup moving forward doesn’t bode well for a career in the starting rotation.
He also faces the problem of working deep into games. Mitchell is especially vulnerable during the second and third times through the order. He posted a 17.8 K% while working the first time through the order in 2016. That number drops to 7% the second time through, and craters out at zero the third time. Joe Girardi kept Mitchell on a short leash after returning from injury. It’s also fair to assume, however, that Girardi knew Mitchell lost effectiveness as the game wore on.
There’s also a long history of injuries with Mitchell. He missed significant portions of the previous two seasons with largely freak accident injuries. Thankfully none of them affected his arm. The problem, however, is that he missed crucial development time. He lost innings that are crucial for a starter. It’s tough to imagine the Yankees penciling Mitchell in for 180 odd innings or so next season.
Ultimately, Mitchell appears best suited for a role in short relief. He has a high octane fastball and a power curve that is suited for the bullpen. The Yankees have had success in the past with starting pitching prospects moving to relief roles. That might be the most valuable outcome for Mitchell.
Any one of Cessa, Green, and Mitchell could reasonably win the number 5 starting job. The real problem is that when the inevitable injuries set in, each figures to have more prominent roles. Having a rotation full of number 4’s and 5’s makes for a slog of a season. Ask the Red Sox how that worked for them in 2015. Letting the kids pitch is fine if the Yankees are committed to a full rebuild, but that’s not the case. The order is to also remain competitive. In that case, the rotation needs upgrading because the depth pieces are mostly uninspiring.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball-Reference.