All offseason and now into the regular season, a major talking point among fans and the media is that the Yankees need an ace. They need one of their starters to emerge as the premier option, throwing over 200 innings, pitching to a low or sub-3 ERA, and coming as close as possible to the popular 20-win threshold. Those are roughly the numbers usually associated with a "true ace", but the problem for the Yankees is that they haven't had a starter like that since 2009-2012 CC Sabathia, and that pitcher is long gone.
This season, an argument can be made for any of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, or Luis Severino emerging into that role. Unfortunately, however, one can also make an argument that each will falter this season through either performance or injury. Expecting any of the Yankee starters to emerge as a top-tier ace is more unlikely than not, but fear not Yankee fans; both history and logic indicate that's just fine.
Now, when I say that the Yankees don't need an ace, I am not saying that they don't need solid starting pitching. Pitching is and always will be important, but in today's game, teams don't need that one "true ace" that so many teams and fans clamor for in order to be successful. A strong bullpen and offense can carry a team if their starters record quality starts (a minimum of six innings with three earned runs) about, say, 55% of the time. That would be 89 quality starts over the regular season, which would have been the tenth most in baseball last season.
I don't want to turn this into a post about quality starts because its usefulness is up for debate in most baseball circles. However, it's noteworthy that five of the six teams who led the league in quality starts last season made the playoffs, and from from 1950-2010, teams won 67.7% of their games in which their starter gave a quality start, via an interesting article on the statistic from Baseball Prospectus. The basic idea is that the Yankees don't need anyone to be a dominant ace, as long as most of their starters are mostly giving quality starts, which will lead to wins given how the Yankees are built.
That build is an elite bullpen and a strong offense. Since the Yankees have three of the best relievers in baseball (once Aroldis Chapman returns), and a batch of promising, talented arms filling out the bullpen, starters going deep is less important. A seventh inning out of a starter is unlikely to be as effective as one inning from Dellin Betances out of the bullpen. As long as the starters can keep the Yankees in the game, ideally with a lead, for six or even five innings, the pinstripes have the luxury of turning the ball over to a shutdown bullpen.
The starters' burden is also lessened if the offense can produce runs up to their capability. They scored the second-most runs in baseball last season and have a chance to be even better. Starlin Castro already seems like a huge addition, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are bounce-back candidates, and the middle-of-the-order looks to be as productive as last season. If Wednesday's 16-run explosion against Houston is any indication, the offense will be more than fine this season. That game showed how potent this lineup can be; they're deep one through nine in the order without a weak spot, have power, draw walks, and can swipe some bags.
The Yankees won't score 16 runs every game, but their offense and bullpen should be good enough where it can lessen the load on the rotation. The starters still need to pitch well, but this notion that "Tanaka needs to return to ace form" or "Luis Severino or Michael Pineda have to emerge as an ace" is flawed.
The Yankees can be successful with a rotation filled with guys pitching like two or three starters, and all their starters, with the possible exception of Sabathia, surely have that ability. Tanaka's career ERA is 3.16 across two seasons; all the peripherals suggest a Pineda breakout is imminent; Eovaldi can throw 100 mph, now has a filthy splitter, and looked great in the second half last season; Severino is just 22 but has the stuff to be a frontline starter, and Sabathia is not nearly the pitcher he once was, but a minor resurgence isn't impossible.
It wouldn't be the first time a team was successful without an ace; just look at the 2015 Red Sox.... Kidding of course, the "We're all aces" plan didn't go the way they wanted obviously. The problem for them, though, wasn't that they didn't have an ace, it was that their rotation as a whole was just bad, particularly at the start of the season when they didn't have Eduardo Rodriguez. Their rotation's composite ERA was 4.39, the seventh highest in baseball. Their offense and bullpen weren't good enough to overcome the rotation's ineptitude.
A better example to look at is the Royals from last season. Their rotation's 4.34 ERA was also less than stellar, the ninth worst in baseball. Chris Young had a 3.18 ERA in 18 starts and Edinson Volquez posted a 3.58 ERA in 33 starts, but no other pitcher who started more than ten games had an ERA under 4.00. Did it hurt the Royals? Well, they won 95 games and the World Series so I'll say no. Aside from Jeremy Guthrie, their starters were good enough despite not having an ace, and they had both an incredible bullpen and a solid offense (tenth best wRC+ in baseball).
That is the blueprint the Yankees have to follow this season. Their starters pitch well enough to keep them in the game, the offense scores runs, and the bullpen shuts the door. Through the first series of the year, that plan looks to be off to a good start as evidenced by the games on Wednesday and Thursday.
I'm sure the Yankees would love to have a rotation full of aces like their rival Mets, but they don't even need one ace to win this season.