Another day of bullpen sessions has passed without incident for the New York Yankees’ fragile collection of starting pitchers as they gear up for the 2016 season. The progress of Masahiro Tanaka has been particularly scrutinized as he rehabs from offseason surgery to remove a bone-spur in his right elbow.
After Tanaka’s throwing session Monday morning, Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Chad Jennings of The Journal News, “He’s where we want him to be. So far there’s been no hitches or anything, so we’ll just keep progressing and hopefully it stays that way.”
Rothschild went on to say that despite the elbow issues that have plagued Tanaka since being shut down in the middle of the 2014 season, he sees the team’s ace as a realistic candidate to throw 200 innings in 2016. We heard Joe Girardi say the same thing about Luis Severino in his first press conference of the season (via Joel Sherman of the New York Post).
While spring training is the time for this sort of optimism, no Yankee starter even approached the 200-inning mark last season. CC Sabathia led the team with 167.1 innings last season, but entering his age-35 season even that number is likely to go down.
Given the injury and durability concerns that continue to plague this group, it is not realistic to expect the lack of 200-inning pitchers to change this year. Nathan Eovaldi missed the end of the season with elbow inflammation. Sabathia continues to struggle with a degenerative knee condition. Severino threw a career high 161.2 IP last season as a slight-framed 21-year-old. Michael Pineda threw something resembling a full season of work in 2015 for the first time since his rookie year and seemed to struggle with fatigue as the season progressed. Ivan Nova is still shaking off the after-effects of Tommy John surgery. Tanaka is pitching with a partial tear in his UCL that will inevitably require Tommy John of his own. The Yankees are just hoping it will come after he opts out of his contract following the 2017 season.
One of New York’s biggest strengths entering the 2016 season is their starting pitching depth. Even after shipping Adam Warren to the Chicago Cubs and failing to acquire the young starter they were reportedly targeting this offseason, the Yankees have a number of solid options for their rotation, even beyond their one through five. Nova is expected to begin the season as the long man in the bullpen, but was a reliable mid-rotation starter as recently as 2013. Twenty-four-year-old Bryan Mitchell has shown promise as a starter and reliever, and he’s expected to take over Warren’s job of shuttling back and forth between the two roles. He had a 3.12 ERA in 15 Triple-A starts last season. Luis Cessa is already on the 40-man roster and looks ready to step in as a back-of-the-rotation guy as a soon as an opportunity emerges. New York has top prospects Brady Lail and James Kaprielian in big-league camp this spring. They could be MLB ready as soon as midseason depending on how they progress. Last year’s breakout starter Chaz Hebert is another interesting arm to watch in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
With all of these viable starters on the 40-man roster and in the upper minors, it would make sense for the Yankees to once again explore the idea of using a six-man rotation. The team doesn’t have an ace like Dallas Keuchel or David Price whose starts they need to maximize. Last season they made a point of giving their starters extra rest when they could, even officially implementing a six-man rotation for a stretch during the second half of the season. Tanaka made 19 of his 24 starts on extra rest last season. That is the routine that made him one of the most dominant pitchers on the international stage during his seven seasons for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He pitched between 155 and 226.1 innings every year during that stretch. While Tanaka has said that he is comfortable pitching on four or five days rest, he is far too important to the team’s chances over the next few seasons to be cavalier with his health.
Another Yankee who benefited from an extra day of rest last season was Pineda. Big Mike had a 5.00 ERA in 13 starts on four days rest, almost twice as high as the 2.72 mark he posted in eight starts with five days off in between appearances. This makes sense given that Pineda doubled his innings total from 2014 to 2015, going from 84 to 168.1. The previous two seasons he combined for 40.2 innings pitched. Pineda was considered by many (including me) to be a dark-horse Cy Young Award candidate last season, but after a hot start to the season, his performance suffered down the stretch. His 2015 splits seem to indicate that he would be better able to sustain his front-of-the-rotation performance given five days rest rather than the typical four.
A six-man rotation could also be crucial to wringing another productive season or two out of Sabathia, who is owed a whopping $50 million through 2017 assuming his option vests. Like Pineda, CC was vastly better in 2015 when given an extra day of rest. In the nine starts when he was given an additional day off, he had a serviceable 4.04 ERA, more than a run lower than his 5.29 mark on regular rest. A healthy and productive Sabathia could be a stabilizing force in the middle of the Yankee rotation. Some extra time off between starts, the new brace he’s used to steady his knee, his newfound sobriety, and a little luck on fly balls could all conspire to create something resembling the old CC in 2016.
Even if it makes sense on paper, the team’s decision-makers don’t sound inclined to go with a six-man rotation this season. In January, general manager Brian Cashman told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, “Right now, it’s more likely that we go the conventional route and have five starters, and whoever is the loser out of that battle for five spots would potentially be a long man in the ‘pen, waiting in the wings. But who knows? We’ll have to wait and see.”
Girardi was equally non-committal recently when asked by whether Tanaka would once again receive extra rest because of his lingering elbow issues. He told Chad Jennings, “We’ll have to see how it works out and what we feel he needs. If you do that, a lot of times you have to carry a six-man rotation. It could screw up your bullpen and do a lot of different things, but we’ll do what we have to do.”
Neither Cashman nor Girardi completely dismissed the idea offhand, which is encouraging. They merely said that it wasn’t currently the plan. While the team arguably has more certainty in its rotation than it did a year ago, enough question marks remain that being cautious with key players would still be wise. If you assume New York wants to give Kaprielian, Lail, and Hebert more time in the minors this season before considering them legitimate MLB options, that still leaves the team with eight promising starters already in big league camp and on the 40-man roster to consider this spring.