It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees possessed what looked like a surefire elite rotation on paper. They signed superstar Gerrit Cole for a record $324MM during the offseason, and the plan was for him to lead a group with two other front-end starters (Luis Severino and James Paxton) and a pair of established complements (Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ). Sadly for the Yankees, though, the injury troubles that dogged them throughout last season haven’t relented in the new year. They’ve already lost Severino for 2020 after he underwent Tommy John surgery last week. That means this will be the second straight lost year for the electrifying Severino, who was essentially robbed of a 2019 on the mound because of shoulder and lat problems. The oft-injured Paxton will sit out until May or June as a result of back surgery, meanwhile, and the Yankees will also go without the services of Domingo German for 63 games because of a domestic violence suspension.
The Yankees have known for a while there would be no German to begin the season, but the Severino and Paxton injuries are sizable, unexpected shots to their rotation. They’re now facing multiple question marks in their starting staff after Cole, Tanaka and Happ, at least until Paxton and German come back (judging by his 2019, even Happ’s no lock to offer decent production). It seems lefty Jordan Montgomery is the odds-on favorite to begin 2020 as the Yankees’ No. 4 starter. If the Yankees get the 2017 version of Montgomery who held his own as a rookie, they’ll be in fine shape. But Montgomery combined for just 31 1/3 major league innings from 2018-19 (four last season) in the wake of Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, so no one really knows what he’ll provide going forward.
Cole, Tanaka, Happ and Montgomery aside, who else could open the season in the Yankees’ top five? Let’s examine several of the candidates vying for the role this spring…
- Jonathan Loaisiga, RHP: With his 96 mph fastball, Loaisiga can be electric, but the 25-year-old hasn’t had much success going deep in games during a small amount of major league starts. Furthermore, control has been a problem for Loaisiga since he debuted in 2018. While Loaisiga has fanned upward of 11 hitters per nine across 56 1/3 innings (24 appearances, eight starts), a 4.47 BB/9 has helped lead to an unspectacular 4.79 ERA/4.33 FIP.
- Clarke Schmidt, RHP: The 24-year-old, hard-throwing Schmidt has never pitched above the Double-A level, but he’s a recent first-round pick (2017) who has opened eyes with five innings of one-run, six-strikeout ball this spring. That’s not much of a sample size, but Schmidt has impressed at multiple minor league levels since undergoing TJ surgery in his draft year. He currently ranks as the Yankees’ second-best prospect at Baseball America, which writes that he has the “ceiling of a midrotation starter.”
- Deivi Garcia, RHP: Speaking of high-end prospects, Garcia’s right in line with Schmidt when it comes to promising Yankees farmhands (BA has him third in the team’s system). Although he’s undersized at 5-foot-9, 163 pounds, that didn’t prevent Garcia from reaching Triple-A ball at the age of 20 last year. It didn’t go well (5.40 ERA/5.77 FIP in 40 innings), but it’s hard to get down on someone so young for struggling at the highest level of the minors. With that in mind, though, it may be too ambitious to expect him to be ready for the majors in a few weeks.
- Mike King, RHP: King’s yet another prospect (New York’s 13th-best at BA), though he does carry a bit of MLB experience, having made one appearance and thrown two innings with the Yankees last September. That made for a good ending to the season for King, whom the Yankees acquired from the Marlins in a notable trade in 2017, after a stress fracture limited him to fewer than 50 professional frames in 2019. The 24-year-old thrived in the minors the year before, however.
- Chad Bettis, RHP: Bettis, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league contract just over two weeks ago, brings the most experience to the table of anyone in the mix. The 30-year-old appeared in 164 games and started 92 with the Rockies from 2013-19, during which he was fairly successful at times (specifically from 2015-16). Bettis is now coming off a rough season that he mostly spent in Colorado’s bullpen, as he pitched to a 6.08 ERA/5.16 FIP and struck out fewer than six batters per nine over 63 2/3 innings before undergoing hip surgery in August. On the bright side, he did post his highest average fastball velocity in years (93 mph) and log a tremendous 60.2 percent groundball rate.
- Luis Cessa, RHP: Like Bettis, Cessa’s an elder statesman relative to most of this bunch. The 27-year-old has 86 games and 19 starts under his belt in the majors, where he has amassed 232 innings. Cessa throws hard (upward of 94 mph), but it hasn’t translated to big-time results as a member of the Yankees, with whom he owns a 4.50 ERA/4.98 FIP. After spending last season in the bullpen, it seems he’s ticketed for a similar role this year, meaning his chances of earning the fifth spot in New York’s rotation appear quite slim.
If the Yankees aren’t content to roll with this group until Paxton and German return, perhaps they’ll scour the trade, free-agent and/or waiver markets (alternatively, they could deploy an opener such as Chad Green). They’ve already shown interest in Mets lefty Steven Matz, but a deal between the two New York rivals looks like a long shot. We also explored some other potential trade targets for the Yankees last week, but those hurlers admittedly look as if they make more sense as in-season targets. And while free agency looks to be devoid of impact arms at this point, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a low-risk flier on a veteran(s) who’s still seeking an opportunity.