It’s been four months since I wrote about this year presenting a big opportunity for a handful of the Yankees’ pitching prospects. Over a long 162 game season, I posited that guys like Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King would have ample time to showcase themselves for the 2021 rotation. Given the looming free agencies of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and potentially JA Happ, alongside Luis Severino’s rehab, it made plenty of sense to audition the prospects this year. But now that we have a 60 game season at hand (if we have a season!), things will be different.
The tricky thing is that the Yankees’ 2021 situation hasn’t changed: Tanaka, Paxton, and Happ could all be gone. Severino won’t be around for at least the first few months of the season. Only Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán are under team control, leaving at least two rotation spots open. Simply handing both of those spots to inexperienced youngsters seems doubtful. Yes, the Yankees gave a spot to rookie Montgomery out of camp in 2017, but that was a rare exception.
The easy answer to the 2021 problem is to re-sign Tanaka and Paxton, thereby giving more time to incorporate the rookies into the rotation. I can’t say that I’m confident both impending free agents will be back, though. Maybe one will. In any case, the Yankees still need to find out how ready the young arms are. It’s just that the organization can’t trot out any of them with a ten game division lead in mid-August. That ship has sailed.
So, the Yankees will have to accept additional risk to get a true sense of how ready García, Schmidt, and King are. At first glance, none of them could be any worse than Happ was last year, right? That’s easy to say though. Things can always be worse! Nonetheless, trying any of the aforementioned three as openers or in piggyback roles might make some sense, especially paired with Happ. Remember, Happ’s 2021 vesting option lingers. I’m sure the Yankees want to prevent it from triggering.
Using the prospects as openers or as piggyback starters seems like the best balance of risk-reward. It avoids overexposure, at least in the early going, in a season where each inning is much more meaningful. It would limit each of them to two-to-three inning outings, thereby avoiding the multiple times through the order penalty. At the same time, it also allows real looks at how these young arms do against big league hitters. And if all goes well, the team can lengthen the appearances.
Pairing the prospects with Happ seems like a decent enough idea. Best laid plans, though. Not much has been under anyone’s control this year, so it’s hard to imagine everything going according to plan for the pitching staff. At times, the team might have no choice but to start Deivi or Schmidt or King. COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and no one in the rotation is immune, prospects included. And aside from the pandemic, the Yankees might be without Tanaka at the start of the season too. Fortunately, he was diagnosed with a mild concussion after he was hit by a line drive, but we all know that concussion recovery isn’t necessarily predictable. Oh, and last but not least, pitchers break.
Ultimately, opportunities should still exist this season one way or another. Anything conventional, however, is probably out the door. Would it have been nice to enjoy, for instance, Schmidt’s debut in a meaningless August game? Certainly. Instead, the Yankees could need to rely on young arms like him in big spots this year. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Yes, it’s a bit riskier, but these pitchers are going to have to pitch under pressure at some point. In a year where absolutely nothing is normal, these young arms will likely be used on an as-needed basis, traditional development be damned.