Welcome to Yankees Year in Review. This is the third of four parts looking at each position group for the Yankees. This week, it’s the starting rotation’s turn.
If you had to pick one weakness of the Yankees in 2018, it would have to be the starting rotation. Going into the season, it looked like this:
Much like the infield, this is not what the rotation looked like by year’s end. That is not surprising, starting rotations rarely survive a whole year without injuries or poor performance. There was some good and some bad, let’s start with the bad.
The fifth starter was a rotating door, as the Yankees lost Jordan Montgomery after six starts to an elbow strain. That would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery, ending his 2018 and potentially his 2019 season. His initial replacement was Luis Cessa who was also bitten by the injury bug with a hip issue.
Domingo Germán would then get his opportunity to lock down the fifth starter. While he stayed healthy, the results were mixed. Germán has a starter quality pitch mix, the issue was walks and home runs, which kept him from holding onto the spot.
CC Sabathia was a consistent bright spot for the rotation and statistically the third best starter in his age 37 season. It was announced on November 7th that Sabathia signed a one-year contract for 8 million dollars. He also stated that 2019 would be his last season. Sabathia raised his K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) from 7.26 in 2017 to 8.24 in 2018.
Additionally, he cut down his HR/9 (home runs allowed per nine innings) to 1.12 from 1.27 in 2017.
Getting 2.5 WAR from a 37-year-old back-end starter is impressive and if Sabathia can give the Yankees another 150 innings as he did in 2018, then it would be an undeniable success. One milestone to watch: Sabathia needs 14 strikeouts to reach 3,000 in his career.
That brings us to Sonny Gray. The Yankees dealt James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler for the righty in 2017 and he performed fine in those 11 starts. His first full season with the Yankees was bad. Gray walked 3.94 batters per nine innings and had an ERA of 4.90. He was sent to the bullpen where he would be used in long relief and an occasional spot start to end the year.
General Manager Brian Cashman has been rather open about his intent to deal Gray, telling Matt Ehalt of the Bergen Record that Gray “has got a good makeup, I just don’t think this is the right spot for him.” Unless he is packaged with some prospects, it seems hard to believe that Gray will bring much of a return in prospects, maybe some lottery ticket type players.
To replace Gray and strengthen the fifth spot, Cashman dealt from the surplus of players and prospects who were blocked for Lance Lynn and J.A. Happ. Both performed as good, if not better than what was expected of them coming over. Lynn was worth 1.8 fWAR in 9 starts while Happ was worth 1.1 fWAR in 11 starts. Both are free agents and potential targets for backend innings. Lynn can also provide extended innings out of the bullpen, something he did both in the regular season and playoffs for the Yankees.
Masahiro Tanaka was not healthy for the full year but still turned in one of his better seasons statistically. He sliced his ERA down by a full run to 3.75 and his HR/9 to 1.44. Still, he only pitched 156 innings. When healthy, he is arguably the second-best starter to Luis Severino in the rotation and will be with the Yankees for another two years since he did not opt-out of his contract.
Speaking of Severino, he started off the year with Cy Young caliber stuff. The problem was that his ERA in the second half was 5.57, which for reference was higher than Sonny Gray’s full-season ERA. Severino has the pure stuff: a high 90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He did not use the changeup much until the second half, but it showed flashes as a good pitch. There is also some evidence that Severino was tipping pitches, specifically in the playoffs. The hope would be that the team caught this, and it gets addressed going into next season.
Still, with Severino, Tanaka, and Sabathia there are two spots left in the rotation. There are three routes the Yankees could choose: internal promotion, free agency, and trades. Internally, the Yankees have Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, and Jonathan Loaisiga. Adams and Loaisiga both made starts during 2017, while Sheffield made some relief appearances late in the year. Loaisiga performed better than Adams but he also dealt with shoulder issues. Expect all three to compete in Spring training 2019 for a spot.
This free agent class looked impressive for pitching a couple years ago and now, it merely looks okay? Clayton Kershaw was taken off the market by signing an extension with the Dodgers in early November. Hyun-Jin Ryu is rumored to most likely accept the Dodgers’ qualifying offer. So, those are two fewer options.
According to Keith Law (insider paywall), the best pitching options still left are Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Nathan Eovaldi. Corbin would be an “ace” type acquisition, though he has been injured in the past. Keuchel also has missed some time in 2016 and 2017 but would be a great option as a mid-rotation starter. Morton is on the older side and the Yankees may be wary to sign Eovaldi again, especially with the workload he shouldered coming off Tommy John.
Finally, we come to the trade candidates. James Paxton, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber have all been rumored to be available so far this offseason as both the Mariners and Indians decide whether they want to shed payroll. Any one of the three would be welcome additions but come with hefty price tags, though it has not stopped Cashman from dealing before.
No matter what, the rotation will be the number one priority this offseason. Expect Cashman to get creative as he addresses the clear weakness of this Yankees team.
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