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Answers to starting pitching woes must be found in Michael Pineda, Luis Severino

With a thin free agent market this offseason, and trade targets that will cost multiple key pieces of their youth movement, the Yankees' best chance to improve their starting rotation both this year and next comes in the form of pitchers already on their roster.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Help is not on the way. To quote Rick Pitino, "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans." Through the first twenty games of the 2016 season, Yankees starting pitchers have combined for 112.1 innings (an average of less than six per game), a 5.13 ERA, and a more respectable 3.97 FIP. The season is still young, but it does not take a great baseball mind to know that the team's starting pitching will need to improve if they hope to contend for a playoff spot this year. That improvement though, is unlikely to play for another MLB team, or to be throwing baseballs for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or Double-A Trenton.

Simply put, the 2016-17 free agent class for starters is extremely thin, and the Yankees top starting pitching prospect, James Kaprielian, has been shut down indefinitely with right elbow inflammation after 18 impressive innings with High-A Tampa. If the Yankees are to improve their starting rotation this year, or next year, that improvement likely will originate within the starting rotation as it is currently conceived. There are some pieces to build around. Masahiro Tanaka has pitched well in his four starts thus far, and Nathan Eovaldi has pitched better each time he has taken the ball this season, including his flirtation with a no-hitter earlier this week in Texas.

Those bright spots have been overshadowed by an anemic lineup, and by the struggles of Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, and CC Sabathia. While Pineda has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career with the Yankees, Severino has been the greatest disappointment thus far, pitching to a 6.86 ERA over 19.2 innings of work. Given the way he excelled at the Major League level in 11 starts in 2015, many expected that Severino might ultimately emerge as the team's best pitcher in 2016. Instead, he has given up lots of hard contact, primarily due to a proliferation of pitches left up in the strike zone and poorly located sliders.

Severino is just 22 with 15 MLB starts under his belt, and the Yankees have no reason to believe that he will not eventually return to the form he showed last season; the talent is there and he has already demonstrated what he is capable of when he keeps his pitches down and locates his secondary offerings. It is harder to know what to make of Pineda, who has exhibited flashes of brilliance, but just as often demonstrates an inability to pitch himself out of trouble. Still, the Yankees need to hope that the best is yet to come this season and next for Severino and Pineda, because the pool of available reinforcements is extremely shallow.

At the end of this season, the free agent market for starting pitchers will be led by Stephen Strasburg, one of the top arms in the game today, and second-best options including Brett Anderson, Clay Buchholz, and Andrew Cashner. After Strasburg, and compared with last year's class featuring David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, and Jeff Samardzija, this upcoming group falls short in terms of providing a multitude of quality starters who are certain to improve the Yankees' staff.

The lack of depth in the upcoming free agent market will place a higher premium on the trade market for high-end starting pitching. Billy Beane will demand a massive haul for Sonny Gray, who at 26 is under team control until 2020. Tyson Ross has appeal but also is currently on the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder. Those are just two of the names that have been mentioned as potentially being available, and more are certain to follow, but are the Yankees willing to let go of multiple key pieces from their youth movement to acquire a front-line starter?

Strasburg would be a huge get for the Yankees this offseason, but he has a history of arm troubles (including Tommy John surgery in 2010), and the Yankees appeared extremely reluctant this past winter to enter into six-figure salary territory with another starting pitcher. If the Yankees remain consistent in their hesitance to fork over mega dollars to front-line starters, and hope to see their top prospects play for them in the Major Leagues, then improvement must come from within. Tanaka and Eovaldi are the rotation's anchors at the moment, and the Yankees would be wise to lock up the latter long-term before he hits free agency in 2018. Even with the depth of their bullpen the Yankees need more from their starters to compete for a playoff spot. Ultimately, their best bet for realizing that improvement, both this year and next, comes in the form of pinstripes, wearing numbers 35 and 40.