Spring Training Competition: Fifth Starter

Pitchers and catchers are the theme of the week, and since I already covered the backup catcher competition, today it’s time for the fifth starter role.

If it wasn’t for James Paxton’s surgery, this probably wouldn’t have been a competition at all. Brian Cashman proclaimed JA Happ as the team’s fifth starter in January. Personally, I expected some sort of competition whether or not Happ was still with the team, but that’s moot now. Happ’s going to be in the rotation leaving the last spot up for grabs. Let’s take a look at whose in the hunt for the last starter spot.

The favorite

It certainly seems like Jordan Montgomery is the heavy favorite. Aaron Boone spoke highly of him. He’s also got the most big league experience and success compared to the rest of the bunch in this battle. In 182 2/3 pre-TJS innings with the Yankees, Montgomery had a 3.84 ERA, 4.09 FIP, and 3.5 WAR. That’s rock solid for a back of the rotation guy.

Track record aside, the one concern I have is how rusty he may be. Now, he did return to pitch four innings last September after missing most of 2018 and 2019 rehabbing, which is a plus. But he really hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since early 2018. On the other hand, when is there a better time to dust off the cobwebs than April?

Remember, Monty won a rotation spot out of camp as a rookie in 2017 — before he had ever thrown a major league pitch. The Yankees liked him then and certainly still do now. Expect him to be in the rotation from the get go.

Better off in the bullpen?

Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa were named as options by Brian Cashman after the Paxton news broke. However, both may be better utilized in relief.

Cessa seemingly found his home in the bullpen last year. In 43 games and 81 innings, all in relief, Cessa recorded a 4.11 ERA and 4.87 FIP. The 27 year-old righty’s fastball-slider combination appears to play up in shorter stints. And frankly, I don’t really want him facing the top of the opponent’s order in the first inning. He’s better suited in low leverage opportunities as he showed last season.

Loaisiga is tantalizing simply because of his nasty stuff. Not only did he average 96.9 miles per hour on his fastball last year, but he also was in the 84th and 89th percentile in fastball and curveball spin, respectively. Though his command wavers, we know he can be dominant at times. As we’ve seen with so many other hard throwers with suspect command, sometimes they’re better off in short stints and in fact more valuable in relief anyway.

The unknown

After a strong 2018 following his inclusion in the Giancarlo Stanton trade, there was some intrigue about Michael King’s potential to be a back of the rotation starter. As a 24 year-old in 2018, King dominated across 161 1/3 innings between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. He had a 1.79 ERA and 2.76 FIP supported by a good strikeout rate (24.7 percent) and stupendous walk rate (4.7 percent).

Unfortunately, 2019 was mostly a lost year for King, hence his chances in this competition being a bit of a mystery. He had a stress reaction in his pitching elbow last spring training which basically derailed all of his campaign. Once he completed his rehab and returned to action, he wasn’t as good as the year before. He did get to make his major league debut in relief last September, at least.

King’s kind of in the same boat as Montgomery except he doesn’t have the big league track record. Both pitchers returned late last season after lengthy layoffs, so it’ll be interesting to see how sharp they are in the early going. King’s going to get a look, but chances are he’s in Scranton to begin 2020.

The prospects

The Yankees’ 40-man is littered with pitching prospects, though only one of them is close to the big leagues. Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Nick Nelson, and Miguel Yajure were all new additions to the 40-man roster this winter and will be exciting to see in camp. However, only García appears to have a legitimate shot given his proximity to the majors.

Deivi reached Triple-A by the end of 2019 and there were some whispers of him joining the big league bullpen by season’s end. That never came to fruition as García stumbled a bit in Scranton. Nonetheless, the 20 year-old righty is a consensus top-100 prospect specifically named by Cashman as in the running for the gig.

Don’t count on Deivi winning the job out of camp, but it’s not impossible. Being on the 40-man alone is a booster, and if he shoves in Grapefruit League action, people are going to want to see him in the majors soon.

If we move away from the 40-man, we’ll also find Clarke Schmidt as a non-roster invitee. Schmidt’s prospect pedigree is basically on par with García’s, sans the BP rankings which prefers the latter by a good margin. There’s a decent shot we see Schmidt in pinstripes by year’s end, but since the Yankees would need to cut someone to add him for Opening Day, his odds are slim to none. Worth a mention though because of his upside and inclusion in big league camp.

Break glass in case of emergency

The Yankees brought in Nick Tropeano on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. He’s assuredly destined for Triple-A to start the season, but he does have over 200 major league innings to his name. Tropeano’s struggled to stay healthy and was last effective in 2015 and 2016, so he’s not particularly enticing.

Unless there are tons of injuries to the staff in spring, Tropeano’s not going to see action with the Yankees. He’s here more to fill out Scranton’s rotation than serve as an actual major league option. Still, he’s in camp and has pitched at the highest level before, so I suppose he has some qualifications. Again though, it’d take a true emergency to need him right away.

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8 Comments

  1. Mungo

    The signing of Bettis today could throw another candidate into the mix. Bettis’s career numbers aren’t pretty, but he’s a sinker baller who pitches in Colorado. Had roughly a 60% ground ball rate last year, and had a 2.88 ERA while pitching on the road.

    • Mungo

      To clarify, I was referring to the last season Bettis served as a starter, which was 2018. He put up a 2.88 road ERA.

  2. chip56

    I think the 5th Starter will be Happ as Gumby will leapfrog him in the pecking order

  3. JG (Melky Mesa)

    Montgomery should have it easy unless they think he doesn’t look right.

  4. MikeD

    A lingering effect from TJS is the only way I can see Montgomery not winning the 5th starter’s job. He was a member of the rotation in 2017 and early 2018, and an effective one, until his elbow gave out. They need to determine if he’s fully back, or enough back to give him the spot. He’s a command-and-control guy, but his command was always a bit spotty. Command is often the last thing to come back after TJS, so that’s what they’ll be looking at. It’s possible they’ll decide he may need a month or two in Scranton. Unlikely though. The bar to clear for the 5th spot is low. Loaisiga’s arm is intriguing out of the pen, but my guess is he starts the year in AAA along with King. They will want both of these guys stretched out and ready until Paxton and German return. Loaisiga likely shifts to the pen once that happens. Garcia? He could blow everyone away in ST, but my guess is he’ll spend a good chunk of 2020 in Scranton at finishing school.

  5. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    It’s gotta be Monty, Derek. He has earned the right to get his spot back and there’s no other viable alternative. And I’d argue that Monty has already locked up #4 starter and Happ is #5. The injury doesn’t bother me. He’s had ample time to recover and there’s no reason to believe he can’t put up another sub 4 ERA.

    Lasagna is a reliever and we’re gonna need him with Ottavino crapping the bed so much. I think he’d make a good opener if we need or a Ramiro Mendoza type swing man.

    Cessa is not good and should be nothing more than a long man who eats up junk innings. To expect any more of him is foolish.

    I’d put King, Schmidt or Deivi in the rotation over Happ. Either one could at least put a 5 ERA on the board, which is what Happ does, and they’d be getting valuable experience.

  6. Section8

    King was not in the Stanton deal. He was acquired for Caleb Smith & Garret Cooper

  7. ry drury

    King was a part of the Caleb Smith trade

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