Shifting Pitching Priorities

Even though the Yankees exited the playoffs way earlier than we expected or wanted, there were two silver linings: Giancarlo Stanton raking and Gerrit Cole dealing. The latter was highlighted all the more by the general non-dealing of the rest of the Yankee rotation. And as the Yankees stare into the void of the offseason, I find myself thinking a lot about their starting rotation and pitching staff in general.

Over the last little while, the Yankees’ pitching strength has been their bullpen. Year after year, they have a solid relief core and that’s true now. Hell, their set-up guy in Zach Britton would be the closer on just about every other team, and the same might be true of Chad Green. This pattern seems to work for them; they win lots of games and most always make the playoffs. But the problem is that once they get there, their super-bullpen is a little less super, having been used to the point of being gassed by October.

A solution to this is for the Yankees to go after another reliever in free agency or a trade to deepen the bullpen. It’s a solution the Yankees could easily and rightly pursue. However, I think they need to take a different course: strengthening the rotation.

Yes, there’s a hot take for you, folks: a baseball team needs to strengthen its starting pitching. The Yankees have attempted this, with varying degrees of success, over the last few years. They’ve traded for Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, JA Happ, and James Paxton. And, of course, they signed Gerrit Cole. But for the most part, these moves just filled out the rotation rather than adding necessary depth to it.

Going in to 2021, the only real sure thing in the rotation is Gerrit Cole. Happ, Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka are all free agents and I’d wager only one of them–likely Tanaka–will ever pitch for the Yankees again. Even if they bring Tanaka back (yes, please), they’ll still be left with questions in the rotation, given Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt’s youth and inexperience as well as Luis Severino’s Tommy John Surgery recovery. As such, the Yankees should sign Tanaka as well as at least one other starter, preferably two.

Signing multiple starters would have a threefold positive effect for the Yankees. First, it would add reliability and predictability to the rotation. We know what the Yankees will get out of Cole and what they would get out of Tanaka. Beyond that, we’re not sure. Second, and this is related to the first, it would give the Yankees a little insurance against the growing pains of Garcia and Schmidt. Sure, signing three starters might push one of them–or both–out of the five man rotation at times, but there will always be room, always be innings to go around. Third, and perhaps most important, is that signing more starters could help give the Yankee bullpen a break.

Given how much the Yankees rely on their bullpen and how vital a strong bullpen is to October success, keeping the relievers well-rested is of the utmost importance. Signing multiple starters can allow for this with more starter-pitched innings in the regular season. Additionally, any extra starters could be deployed out of the bullpen in the playoffs to give the high-leverage arms some rest in a time when rest is scarce.

I’m not saying the Yankees need to go wild and back the truck up for Trevor Bauer–frankly, I’m not convinced of him. But I would like them to bring back Tanaka and bring in some other starters–Marcus Stroman? Charlie Morton? For too long, the Yankees’ pitching success has been predicated upon their bullpen. I’m not sure they can reach the next level while continuing to do that.


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  1. John Thomas

    They last went to and won a WS in 2009. How did they reward the series MVP? They did not even offer Matsui a one year extension to his contract. Instead, they have spent more than a billion dollars on players that have come up empty handed the last eleven years! That is bad karma folks! Sort of like ‘the curse of the bambino’!

  2. chip56

    What is the point in bringing Tanaka back? Because he was nails in the post season a couple of years ago? He’s a guy who needs a ton of workload management both in games and between starts to even be an effective mid-rotation arm. Just let him go. Pry open the damn wallet and sign Bauer.

  3. Steve

    Starting 8 of Cole/Stroman/Tanaka/Monty/Deivi/Sevy/Schmidt/German isn’t bad. Any of the latter 4 have decent ceilings, so even if not all of them are great we should still be fine. This team needs to be built for the playoffs, which means a strong 1-2 and an above average #3. Three of those back end guys have all shown flashes of being an ace, which would put us in a great place.

  4. Mungo

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with a “surprise” team that makes the postseason with a strong bullpen then opting to maximize that bullpen to see how far they can go. It’s another thing entirely to enter the season planning to make the postseason with the bullpen being the strongest part of your pitching staff. Ideally, you want a strong starting rotation and a strong pen. The Yankees starters in their recent postseason runs have been lacking depth, which causes an overreliance on the pen. Even the best of pens will become overused in that scenario, and the top lineups in the postseason will eventually being to catch up with the best bullpen arms.

    The Yankees adding a stud in Cole this past offseason was smart. In fairness, they had one of the best starting rotations in the game planned, with Cole, Severino, Paxton, Tanaka and Happ, with Montgomery as the 6th starting, pushing Happ potentially to the pen. Beyond those six starters they had two high-end arms in Garcia and Schmidt for the 7th and 8th spots. That actually is a very deep rotation, and if healthy, it almost assuredly would have carried the Yankees past Tampa. The problem? The Yankees knew Severino might have an arm issue last October, and they knew Paxton was having back surgery. I suspect they gambled Severino would be fine with an offseason of rest, and Paxton would be back in top form by June. They lost that bet and they never made any moves to improve the rotation once they lost two of their top starters. The Yankees may be going all in each off season, but they come up short adjusting during the season.

    I have no idea what their plan is this offseason. The have Cole at the front end, and Montgomery, German, Garcia and Schmidt at the backend. Maybe Severino comes back in top form midyear and they have an ace and a #1 fronting the top two spots. They really need to add a strong #2 by free agency or trade and maybe even a #3. Tanaka can fill that role if he was to return. The Yankees can do this if they increase their payroll. It’s a shame they’re letting a championship run expire all because they are managing to a budget.

  5. Wire Fan

    While I think the Yankees should go for two starters via FA or trade, I suspect it will be only one

    Cole, German, FA, Garcia, Montgomery. With schmidt probably the depth starter in AAA. And we will get the song and dance about Severino being like a midseason trade coming back from TJS.

    That still seems thin to me. Have to assume there will be one to two injuries along the way and I think they should treat anything they get from Sevy as a bonus (and not rely on that in their planning)

  6. William Clark

    Stronger starters who can eat up innings would help them greatly. Would save the bullpen.

  7. Jeff

    No mention of Montgomery?

  8. mikenyc2007

    IMO its not so much as “built on the bullpen”- its the lack of depth in the bullpen, which gets exposed when the starters don’t get deep into games. Back in 2017, their bullpen had overkill capacity after getting Robertson and Kahnle to cover for the unanticipated failings of Betances, and this year the Yanks were super thin after Kahnle went down….their inability to graduate Cessa, Holder etc into high-leverage guys has really hurt them, and their spending of 15% of their payroll for 8% of innings pitched is an economic tsunami they haven’t been able to mitigate or backfill.

  9. Ralph Johnson

    This is not entirely wrong take. Look at Rays. They have maybe 1 or 2 legit starters and came all the way to game 6. Adding starters to the rotation does t solve anything unless they can pitch deep. Otherwise you’re blowing up the bullpen constantly and that’s been the issue.

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