The day is finally here! Pitchers and catchers have reported to camp, and spring training is underway. If you’ve been following along, we’ve already covered how the bullpen and position players have changed from last year’s camp to today. Now seems like the perfect time to wrap up this mini-series of reflecting on the roster with the final piece: the evolution of the Yankees starters.
The 2018 Yankees, on paper, had a solid rotation to start the year. Everyone, however, was aware that they were looking at upgrades. The team spent a good portion of the offseason trying to pry Gerrit Cole away from the Pirates, but when he ultimately was shipped to Houston, the Yankees opted to wait until the trade deadline to readdress their starters. They would manage to get an arm to bolster their rotation, but not before most of the guys already in place strayed from their expectations.
The first key cog in this is Jordan Montgomery. Coming off a successful rookie campaign, the Yankees were entrusting Gumby to hold down a spot at the end of the rotation. They would see what improvements the 25-year-old could make. Unfortunately, things quickly changed when Monty got shut down after just six starts. The Yankees waited patiently, but the injury wasn’t healing, and doctors recommended Tommy John surgery in June. Montgomery is still recovering from this surgery, and it’s unclear at the moment if he will play in 2019. For immediate future, Monty isn’t a part of the plan.
Luckily for the Yankees, even with Monty down for the foreseeable future, the team already has five strong starters in place this year. That’s thanks to the trade they made midseason last year to acquire J.A. Happ, and his re-signing this offseason. Happ actually started Opening Day facing off against the Yankees, but this season he’ll be in their dugout, carrying a strong second-half performance with him. Happ’s postseason left a lot to be desired. But as a reliable arm to get them through the regular season, Happ should continue to be an upgrade over the revolving door that the Yankees had to utilize last year.
The other significant change revolves around Sonny Gray, whose Yankees tenure ended quicker than most could’ve imagined when they picked him up at the trade deadline two years ago. Gray performed well in his first half-season in New York, prompting excitement that he could contribute as a solid second or third man in the rotation, but 2018 was his nadir. Specifically, Yankee Stadium seemed to be his bane, as Gray pitched to a 6.98 ERA in 15 games in the Bronx. Gray’s explosion was bizarre, but bad enough that the Yankees opted to ship him out to Cincinnati instead of trying to right the ship, believing that he just wouldn’t work out in New York.
Gray’s departure would leave us still down an arm overall, but the Yankees made a move early in the offseason to compensate for this. James Paxton, formerly of the Mariners, will determine if the rotation sinks or swims in 2019. Paxton has legit ace potential and set a career high in strikeouts with 208 in 2018, but he also set a career high at just 160.1 innings. That’s not a length issue, which was a problem for Gray and several other Yankees, but a durability one. A healthy Paxton assures that the Yankees have a top tier 1-2 punch atop the rotation, but health is the hardest thing to predict over 162 games.
One other Yankee significantly changed his expectations over the past year, and that is none other than the staff ace Luis Severino. Sevy broke out in 2017, finishing third in the AL Cy Young race, and was poised to be a candidate for the award again. His first half of 2018 seemed to speak that into reality, as Sevy was dominating the competition. In the first half Severino carried a 14-2 record to match a 2.31 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 128.1 innings.
His second half, however, was a struggle to watch. Many have speculated that Sevy was tipping his pitches throughout the end of the season, but regardless of whether he was or wasn’t the results were poor: 5-6, 5.57 ERA, and 76 hits in 63 innings. Entering camp last season Sevy was expected to use the previous season as a launching point, this year it’ll be a full reset.
The two other cornerstones of the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, lived up to their expectations. Tanaka came off of an outlier 2017 where he sported a 4.74 ERA thanks in large part to a career-high 35 home runs allowed, but corrected to his career averages in 2018. Sabathia continued to utilize his newfound pitching mechanics to give the Yankees five or six innings per start, and only got burned if Aaron Boone tried to stretch him further than that. Both are pegged to give the Yankees another 160 innings or so, and if they can hit that mark, the Yankees should be in good shape.
Overall, the 2019 rotation looks to be a clearly improved part of the roster than last year’s version, but it also comes in with more apparent question marks than their counterparts did. If the major ones, such as what went wrong with Sevy and will Paxton stay afloat, end up in the Yankees’ favor, then it’s fair to say 2019 should be an exciting year. If they don’t however, there will be a scramble to pick up the pieces as quickly as possible, so as not to ruin a championship-caliber team. Brian Cashman felt comfortable shopping the market for the biggest and most affordable upgrade he could find a year ago, but the options they wanted never really materialized. If he’s forced to do the same again, there’s no guarantee that scenario changes.