Outside of re-signing DJ LeMahieu, pitching was the biggest offseason concern for the New York Yankees. General manager Brian Cashman addressed that concern although question marks still exist in the Yankees starting rotation.
Despite some inconsistencies, two of the three pitchers that left in free agency – Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ – were durable. Tanaka pitched to a 3.74 ERA in seven seasons, and he averaged 27 starts per season before the abbreviated 2020 season. Happ started 50 games for the Yankees spanning from his trade deadline acquisition through the abbreviated 2020 season with 30 starts in 2019.
Both players are gone now. Tanaka returned to Japan, and Happ signed on with the Minnesota Twins. Although their replacements bring great optimism, they also bring a lot of question marks. Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon can be great, but they combined for one inning pitched in 2020.
Inn 2020, MLB teams needed to cover 540 innings with their pitchers, excluding extra inning games. As the schedule goes back to 162 games in 2021, that number jumps back 1,458 innings. Therefore, every team needs to employ more pitching depth than usual because there is no telling how each individual pitcher will react to the increase in workload.
That is even more so the case for the Yankees than with any other team given the injury histories of their offseason acquisitions and the inexperience of some of their other options. While the Yankees have not assembled a rotation that could rival the Los Angeles Dodgers for the deepest in baseball, they have added good depth to their organization to help them reach that 1,458-inning mark.
In Gerrit Cole, it is no secret that the Yankees have a true ace. Every team has a number-one starting pitcher, but not every team has an ace. Cole finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2020, and he will look for his third-consecutive season with a sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.000 WHIP, and a K/BB better than 5.50.
Manager Aaron Boone is likely to be careful with Cole in the regular season. The goal is to not overwork him and make sure he is ready for a potential deep postseason run. Still, Cole is the one pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation that they know right now can give them length when they need it.
Despite all of the question marks in the Yankees’ pitching staff ahead of 2021, Kluber, Taillon, are Jordan Montgomery will be in the rotation if they are healthy. The season will be made or lost depending on how this group performs.
The worst case scenario played out for all three of them over the past two seasons. Kluber has made eight starts in two years and pitched one inning in 2020. Taillon underwent his second Tommy John surgery and has not pitched since 2019. Montgomery also underwent Tommy John surgery, in 2018, and he pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 2020.
At their best, the upside is there. Kluber won the Cy Young Award twice from 2014-2018, and he was one of the best pitchers in MLB during that stretch. It is farfetched to expect him to replicate that success at age 35. However, if healthy, expect him to pitch closer to that level than the pitcher who started eight games in two seasons.
Jameson Taillon pitched 191 innings in 2018 with a 122 ERA+. Now that he has re-made his delivery to take stress off his elbow, the hope is that he can re-create that 2018 season.
Montgomery had a 3.84 ERA and 1.248 WHIP in 182 2/3 innings before his operation. Additionally, he was one of the best pitchers at inducing weak contact in 2020. As he moves further away from his surgery, expect him to build off the good peripherals and get closer to being the pre-surgery pitcher.
The battle in Spring Training for the fifth spot in the Yankees’ pitching rotation will be one of the teams’ bigger stories. Luis Severino will not be ready for Opening Day. He will play a role when he is healthy, but he won’t be the pitcher he was in 2017-2018 after missing most of 2019 and undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020. For now, the competition comes down to a number of young players. Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, Domingo German, and Michael King are all up for the job.
Garcia is one of the leading candidates. The Yankees’ second-best pitching prospect impressed at the MLB level in 2020 before two rough outings inflated his overall numbers. Garcia did not master Triple-A in 2019, but his stuff has played at every level, striking out more batters than innings pitched at each stop before striking out 33 batters in 34 1/3 innings at the MLB level in 2020. In his first four starts, Garcia allowed 20 baserunners in 24 1/3 innings with a 3.28 ERA. He showed early that he can pitch at the MLB level, now he has a chance to prove to Boone and Cashman that he is ready to take the next step and be a full-time member of the rotation.
Schmidt is the Yankees’ best pitching prospect and is 83rd on MLB.com’s top-100. In his brief stint in 2020, he displayed his stuff that has brought rave reviews, but he struggled with command. The 24-year old has never pitched above Double-A aside from that three-game 2020 cameo. Therefore, it is probable that he will start the season at Triple-A for more development, barring a Spring Training that makes it impossible to break camp without him.
There is no telling what to expect out of German after he sat out the entire 2020 season with a domestic violence suspension. In 2019, he was great his best but also struggled at other times. After a year off and a bad showing in the Dominican Winter League, he needs to prove he can still be the pitcher he flashed in 2019, in 2021. If he is right, the Yankees have another arm that can make a difference as they look to reach that 1,458-inning mark.
The final option is King. A former Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the organization, King had experience has a swing guy in 2020. He appeared in in nine games with four starts. Although his rookie season did not go great, allowing 41 baserunners and 23 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings, the organization is high on him, and he is another viable option for the Yankees pitching staff.
Jhoulys Chacin and Asher Wojciechowski both signed minor league contracts in the offseason. They are good depth pieces. In a pinch, their MLB experience make them players to be comfortable with making a spot start. The issue would be a scenario where they become relied upon to throw significant innings in 2021. Given all of names ahead of them on the depth chart, that is unlikely, but their presence on the depth chart is welcomed.
Although the past few seasons have been bad for Chacin, his career 108 ERA+ indicates that he is an above-average MLB pitcher. His most recent good season came in 2018. That year, he started 35 games and pitched in 192 2/3 innings with the Milwaukee Brewers. He won 15 games and pitched to a 3.50 ERA, and he followed that up in the postseason with two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings as the Brewers reached Game Seven of the NLCS.
Wojciechowksi has MLB experience but not near the success of Chacin. He has appeared in 57 games in parts of four seasons, with a 5.95 ERA. His first opportunity to start on a consistent basis came in 2019-2020 with the Baltimore Orioles where he went 5-11 with a 5.51 ERA in 27 games, 23 of which were starts.
The Yankees have assembled good depth for their starting pitching staff. They may not have proven, high-end talent on their depth charts, but the mix of experience and upside make this group one to be comfortable with as the Yankees look toward 2021.
Players mentioned: DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Boone, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, Luis Severino, Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, Domingo German, Michael King, Jhoulys Chacin, Asher Wojciechowski
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