The Yankees starting rotation depth was heavily talked about during this past offseason. For starters (pun intended), the Yankees rotation does not look bad on paper. Their projected rotation (when healthy) was originally indented to be Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and CC Sabathia, probably in that order. Luis Severino placed third in the CY Young award voting in 2017, and was arguably the best pitcher in the American League the first half of 2018.
Here is a little refresher on just how good Severino was in the first half of 2018: he went 14-2 with a 2.31 ERA, threw 128.1 innings, 1.01 WHIP (Walks + Hits in innings pitched), with a K/9 ratio of 10.1 (meaning he struck out about 10 batters in a full nine inning game). All of these numbers put Severino in the top categories of wins, innings pitched, WHIP, and K/9 in all of Major League Baseball.
James Paxton, the ace of the Seattle Mariners last year, is one of the hardest throwing lefty starters in all of baseball. In addition, Paxton’s 11.7 K/9 ratio would have ranked him fourth in all of baseball if he threw more innings, and his FIP (a stat that determines a pitcher’s truer ERA) was 3.28 comparative to his actual ERA of 3.76. Thus, Paxton could be due for a better year in 2019.
Masahiro Tanaka steadily improved from his 2017 campaign, lowering his ERA (4.74 to 3.75), HR/9 (1.8 to 1.4), and WHIP (1.24 to 1.13). J.A. Happ was probably the best pitcher for the Yankees after the trade deadline as he went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 163 ERA+ (meaning that he was 63% better than the league average pitcher, 100 ERA+, during that span). Lastly, CC Sabathia has thrown sub-4 ERA campaigns in his last three seasons, and averaging slightly more than 150 innings during that span. Also, CC is one of the best at keeping batters to a low exit velocity (how hard the ball hits off the bat), which is sustainable.
However, there were underlining concerns even before injuries to Severino and Sabathia. Severino pitched a 5.57 ERA in the second half of 2018, James Paxton has never thrown more than 160.1 innings because of injuries, Tanaka probably won’t be able to replicate his rookie year or 2016 season, and J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia are 36 and 39 years old respectively. As a result, they could very well be due for regression. Thus, there was a reason why Yankees fans wanted someone such as Patrick Corbin, or a cheaper option in Charlie Morton. Now with CC sidelined until mid-late April, and Severino until early May, the rotation is now a more legitimate area of concern. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of the Yankees adding another starter to the squad.
1) Fortify the Rotation Until Sevy and CC Return
The black and white answer to add a starter is because the Yankees just lost two of their own starters. As a result, it makes sense to bring someone new to the staff. However, the true answer is a bit more complex.
The Yankees, of course, do have options in Luis Cessa, Domingo Germán, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Chance Adams, who all have pitched at various times at the Major League Level. While Germán and Loaisiga both rely mainly on strikeouts, each possessing three major-league level pitches each, they are still developing. A spot start here and there, while working out their kinks at Triple-A, would be preferred. Although Cessa has had a strong spring training, he has not been very effective in a relief role, or a starter role the past three years. In addition, Chance Adams could really use another full season at Triple-A. As a result, all of these pitchers are not really the best options to be the fourth and fifth man in the rotation, even for just a month.
2) Keeps Pace With the Red Sox
Although the Yankees finished eight games out of first place, the additions of Ottavino, Paxton, LeMahieu, and Tulowitski will be a big boost for the Bronx Bombers in the upcoming season. Full campaigns from Britton, Voit, Judge, and Happ will also benefit the squad in terms of star power. Also, it’s easy to forget about very possible comeback-seasons from Stanton and Sánchez, after having a down year by their lofty standards. However, while the Yankees have a much better bullpen then the Red Sox, the Red Sox at the end of 2018 had a much better starting rotation than the Yankees. By resigning Happ and Sabathia, as well as adding Paxton and subtracting Sonny Gray, the Yankees have nearly as good of a rotation as the defending World Series champions. With Severino and Sabathia out of the picture even for a short amount of time they do not match up well with the Red Sox rotation.
Chris Sale, a perennial Cy Young candidate, is way better than Tanaka, the Yankees Opening Day starter. David Price, who had a brilliant comeback last year, is just as good, if not slightly better than Paxton. J.A. Happ is slightly more valuable than the innings eater Rick Porcello, although; the real difference makers are the last two spots in the rotation.
Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez both had career years in 2018. The Yankees on the other hand, have two unproven starters between Germán, Loaisiga, and Cessa who probably would not be able to replicate the quality starts from Eovaldi and Rodriguez for even just a month. In a tight division race with the Red Sox every game counts for the Yankees, so by adding a starter they can at least keep a closer pace with the Red Sox rotation.
3) You Can Never Have Too Much Pitching
Any good team should have depth because the injury bug is destined to hit at some point throughout the season. The Yankees already understand this concept by adding Paxton to solidify the rotation, as well as adding Tulowitski and LeMahieu to add infield depth. Nonetheless, pitching depth is always a priority because pitchers are always more injury prone. Even though Severino and Sabathia will join the rotation shortly, one of the remaining starters could potentially go down as well, so why not have a legitimate spot starter when that situation occurs.
4) Price of External Options
According to Sportac, the Yankees have a payroll of about $231 million. The Yankees will definitely want to keep their payroll under $246 million as the face heavier luxury tax and draft pick penalties if they exceed this number. The best option out there right now is Dallas Keuchel. The former Cy Young award winner with the Astros was one of the thirteen pitchers last year to throw 200+ innings and pitch a 3.74 ERA. However, his WHIP increased from 1.12 to 1.31 and his K/9 decreased from 7.7 to 6.7. Both are very discouraging signs from a pitcher on the wrong side of thirty. Paired with the fact that the season is starting in two and half weeks and he still has not signed with a team, Keuchel might be eager to sign a contract. According to Bleacher Report, Keuchel has rejected one to two year deals. As a result, a possible three-year deal might interest Keuchel. A back loaded 3-year/$45 million contract, with the first season at around $10 million, might be something both sides can agree on. This deal would leave room for the Yankees to make any midseason acquisitions they dean necessary Keuchel can give the Yankees some rotation depth after 2019 after CC will retires and Tanaka becomes a free agent. Keuchel is notoriously known for pitching well at Yankee Stadium because of his high ground ball rate, and also from when when he outdueled Tanaka in the 2015 Wild Card Game.
Perhaps the Yankees just want a one-year option, and that is just as fine. They may want at least one of their in-house options to start in the rotation next year. As previously mentioned, Keuchel is unlikely to accept a one-year deal, so the next best option is Gio Gonzalez. While Gonzalez struggled with the Nationals in 2018, once he was traded to the Brewers he finished off the year nicely. Albeit a small sample size of five games, he went 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. Gonzalez should cost no more than $5 million, and he is a proven Major League starter, unlike the Yankees current in-house options.
1) Won’t Be Able to Develop In-House Pitching
If the Yankees were to add a starter, Loaisiga, Germán, or Cessa would be limited to the starting role for only about two weeks due to CC’s return. That’s only about 2-4 starts, which of course is still some major league service time. One of those three pitchers would have to start in the minors, and another one would be sent back to Triple-A after CC returns. The most likely options are probably Loaisiga and Germán since Cessa (now out of minor league options) will probably stay up in the big leagues. Both Loaisiga and Germán do not need that much more time in the minors. They have proven themselves at that level, and need some time to build on their success in the Majors. Despite having a 5.11 ERA in nine games (four starts) in the Majors, Loaisiga had a FIP of 3.53, and a K/9 of 12.0. In addition, his Walks (BB)/9 was a very high 4.4 in the Majors, compared to his 1.3 BB/9 in the Minors last season. As a result, Loaisiga has a lot more in the tank for 2019. As for Germán, he has essentially the same storyline. In twenty-one games, (fourteen starts), his 5.57 ERA is not as indicative as his 4.39 FIP, and his K/9 of 10.7 is still very above average. Therefore, both can use more time spent adjusting to baseball at the highest level. If they struggle, they are only around for a month at most, and the Yankees bullpen and offense can usually keep them in the game.
2) What Will They Do with an Extra Starter?
As early May rolls around, Severino and Sabathia will return to the rotation. If they chose to add a starter, one of the six Yankee current starters would be relegated to the bullpen. While that does not sound like much of a concern, all the Yankee starters and options (Keuchel and Gonzalez) have little experience pitching in the bullpen (besides Severino who will not be demoted). These players may take some time adjusting to a new role, and potentially make them temporarily ineffective. Although there is the possibility that transitioning to the bullpen is not that bad of a change. Take Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn for example, those two improved their 2018 campaign by pitching well out of the bullpen, and both had little experience in relief. A somewhat smooth transition is possible, but pitchers especially are creatures of habits. For example, former starters such as Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances took years until they could become viable relievers. That being said, the timetable for the starter to adjust is unknown, which is a bit risky when they are pitching in the thick of a close pennant race.
3) Don’t Want to Add to Payroll
As previously mentioned, the Yankees have a projected payroll of about $231 million. Although they have $15 million to spend, they want to save a good chunk of that (maybe as high as $10 million) for a midseason acquisition (please be Madison Bumgarner). There is simply no way that Keuchel would settle for $5 million. The Yankees are interested in Gonzalez, but he only pitched well in a small sample size last season. As a result, the Yankees may trust their own in-house starters more than Gio Gonzalez.
4) Their Bullpen Can Handle Not Having a Starter
The Rays invented the Opener strategy last year, which essentially means putting in a solid reliever to start the game and get out the tough hitters at the top of the lineup. This is normally followed by a long reliever to go (usually) at least three innings. 90 wins later and a Manager of the Year award for Kevin Cash, their strategy has been adopted at various times by other teams. Enter the Yankees, now without two starting pitchers, and the best bullpen in baseball, why not use an Opener? Chad Green, or even Jonathan Holder could throw two innings to start the game, followed by three innings of Cessa, Germán, or Loaisiga. Then they can turn the rest to Kahnle, Ottavino, Britton, Betances, and Chapman. If the Rays can use an Opener with their relievers, there is no reason why the Yankees should be able to do the same, but even better.
5) The External Options May Suck
Many players last year that signed with teams after Spring Training did not do well to begin the season. Yankee fans can look no further than 2018 players Neil Walker, and Lance Lynn. Only after the All-Star break did Walker start to produce, as well as when Lynn was relegated to the bullpen in late August. Thus, Keuchel and Gonzalez might have the same experience if they were to join the Yankees, or any team for that matter. Consequently, those two have a decent chance to have growing pains since they missed out on Spring Training. These probable results may not subside for a couple of months, and by then the Yankees will have their rotation back in full-form.
The Right GM Move
The Yankees do have interest in Gio Gonzalez, and while nothing is imminent, they have a good shot at signing him. They should sign Gio Gonzalez to a one-year, $4 million deal. One of the four between Gonzalez, Loaisiga, German, and Cessa will step up. Gonzalez just gives the Yankees another Major League option, which is very important for any playoff contender. You can never have too much pitching. Also, they do not need Keuchel since there are better pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Chris Sale next offseason, so they should save their money. In addition, with their saved money they can extend Didi Gregorius and/or Dellin Betances before the season starts.
All stats not specified in this article are from Baseball Reference