On the surface the New York Yankees went into spring training with the best starting rotation in the American League. Such a notion derived from them signing Gerrit Cole and having a healthy Luis Severino. Unfortunately for the New York faithful, Serverino injured his forearm, which requires season-ending Tommy John surgery, and James Paxton recently had back surgery, which keeps him off the hill to begin the regular season.
These injuries offset Cole’s arrival.
Cole was arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball last season. He was overpowering hitters with a high 90s fastball, getting them to whiff at his off-speed deliveries, and was pitching deep into games for the Houston Astros. Cole recorded a 2.50 ERA and 0.90 WHIP while totaling 326 strikeouts.
Albeit one could argue that two great seasons doesn’t warrant a $324 million contract, the Yankees needed an ace, which is precisely what Cole is. A one-two pitching punch of Cole and Severino projected to be formidable.
Before missing the bulk of last season due to a shoulder injury, Severino was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was a strikeout machine, overpowered hitters with his fastball, pitched deep into games, and was adept at working out of trouble. Sure, he had his postseason struggles, but Severino was an AL Cy Young Award candidate in 2017 and 2018.
A healthy Severino was like a free agent signing for the Yankees. He would’ve been their 1b ace, whereas Cole would’ve been their 1a ace. That prospect has vanished. Furthermore, Paxton’s injury decimates their rotation.
The southpaw has a well-documented injury; he has never made more than 30 starts in a season due to numerous injuries. When healthy, the Big Maple is an electric left-hander. He tends to get hit hard early in games, but he settles in, logs strikeouts at a high rate, and has the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Paxton was manager Aaron Boone‘s most reliable starting pitcher in the second half of last season.
The Yankees active starting rotation includes Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ. After those three, it’s wide open. Jordan Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga are a couple candidates to fill out the team’s opening day rotation. Perhaps top pitching prospects Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, or Albert Abreu get called up to the big leagues midseason? Maybe the Yankees consistently go with one or two bullpen days, like their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, do?
This rotation includes an elite right-hander, a stagnant veteran, an inconsistent left-hander, and a handful of young arms who haven’t turned a corner at the big-league level, partially due to a lack of a consistent role. One, if not two of these young arms will have to make a leap this season, though, as Tanaka and Happ are difficult to get a gauge on.
Historically speaking, Tanaka tends to have a shaky first half and then come to life after the All-Star break. He’s also an exceptional postseason pitcher, as he sports a career 1.76 ERA across eight postseason starts. At the same time, Tanaka has peaked. He is who he is: a respectable veteran who shows glimpses of greatness but overall produces at the level of a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Tanaka’s ERA also gradually rose last season, and he finished with a yawning 4.45 ERA.
Happ’s 2019 campaign was a turbulent trial. While he settled down in the final stages of the regular season, he was the Yankees’ most shaky starter for the bulk of the season. He struggled to get his offerings across the plate, was hit hard, and, subsequently, provided little length. Happ recorded a 4.91 ERA while surrendering a career-high 34 home runs in 31 appearances, 30 of which were starts.
Tanaka is a pro who shows up in big moments, and Happ is capable of having a bounce-back season. At the same time, can both take place to the extent of them filling the void that Severino and Paxton’s absences create?
Last season the Yankees lost Severino, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, and Dellin Betances to injury for a prolonged period of time. They managed to win the AL East with 103 games. Case in point: they can get to the playoffs without some starters.
The Yankees are still the frontrunner to win the AL East and the AL, as a whole. They’re loaded around the diamond with one of the most productive offenses in the sport — headlined by Judge, Sanchez, DJ LeMahieu, and Gleyber Torres — and have depth in the back end of their bullpen with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino.
The issue is that this team is no different than it has been over the last two seasons. In 2018 they had Severino on top of his game and a handful of veteran starters behind him. This time around the Yankees have an upgrade in their number one starter in Cole and a handful of starters who collectively are a tick less stable than those on their 2018 staff. Meanwhile, their offense has continually been a home run-hitting, strikeout prone group that, while highly productive, has been trampled a bit in postseason play.
Last season it was about how the Yankees didn’t have an ace. Now they have one, but they’re essentially trading depth for an ace. It cancels itself out even if Cole continues to perform at an eccentric level. To make matters worse, Judge is nursing a shoulder injury, and Santon may miss opening day due to a calf injury.
Andujar’s return gives Boone more options on his depth chart, and Cole gives them their much-needed ace. On the other hand, they’re essentially trading their 2019 deficiencies for problems of equal significance.
The New York Yankees aren’t going to be the overwhelming threat from all three aspects of the game that we expected; they’re now vulnerable.