Starting pitching: Significant depth and prospects in the pipeline [2021 Season Preview]

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If you read my piece on the Yankees’ pitching depth last week, you know that the team is pretty deep in starting pitching. Sure, some of those pitchers have their warts, but there are also a number of viable options to pitch out of the rotation. Pitchers break — they always do — so it’s best to have a lot of them. By midsummer, the Yanks may have nearly a dozen major league caliber starters. Yes, some far better than others, but that’s a lot of insurance.

Today, it’s time to preview the organization’s starters. Not just those who’ll see major league time, either. Like my catcher preview or Dom’s corner infield breakdown, I’ll dive into the starters down the rungs of the minors.

A formidable front four

It’s awfully exciting to have a full season of Gerrit Cole ahead of us. In that sense, he still feels like a new addition to this team. I know we saw him for 12 regular season and 3 postseason starts in 2020, but there’s nothing quite like having a bona fide ace for 30-plus starts and 200 innings. And that’s what we can expect from Gerrit this season: a workhorse who could easily win the American League Cy Young award.

If there’s any uncertainty regarding Cole in 2021, it’s his battery mate. As you know, Kyle Higashioka became Cole’s personal catcher by last September. Cole had better numbers with Higgy behind the plate, and given Gary Sánchez’s struggles offensively, it was an easy decision at the time. This year, the Yankees are hoping to pair Cole and Sánchez, and understandably so. Ideally, the two mesh and Gary mashes once again.

After Cole is when folks start getting nervous, which I can understand. What’s a soon-to-be 35 year-old Corey Kluber going to look like after two injury-riddled seasons? How will Jameson Taillon rebound from his second Tommy John surgery? Will Jordan Montgomery‘s results catch up to his peripherals? And so it goes. No, this isn’t a rotation for the risk-averse. But at the same time, how many other big league rotations are full of sure things?

As I wrote previously, the team has a good deal of starting depth to plug holes as they come up. Every team needs more than 5 starters each year, and the Yankees will be no exception in 2021. The good news is that they’re better positioned to weather someone like Kluber or Taillon missing a month midseason. And on paper, the front four of Cole-Kluber-Taillon-Montgomery is capable of big things.

I’m not saying that Kluber will rediscover his (two-time) Cy Young form, but there are reasons to believe in him. For one, the Yankees should know his health better than anyone else. Before he signed with New York, Kluber rehabbed with Eric Cressey, the team’s Director of Player Health and Performance. Also reassuring: good projected performance, as I’ll get to in a bit. No one is expecting him to toss 200 innings of sub-3 ERA ball anymore, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a mid-rotation starter caliber performance. And if all goes well, the upside is tantalizing. Sure, things could go wrong, but again: that’s where the depth comes in.

Taillon is another gamble. Not only is he coming off his second Tommy John surgery, but he’s also debuting a new arm motion. There’s a varied track record of pitchers who’ve returned from a second TJS, as Dom wrote about last week. His new, shorter arm action hopefully will keep him healthy, but we also don’t know how it’ll impact his effectiveness. Bobby wrote a bit about the change in yesterday’s notes.

Yesterday certainly was a good first step with the new motion. He struck out one batter in a 1-2-3 seven pitch inning.

Montgomery is a personal favorite. His underlying numbers really jump off his player page, but of course, the results didn’t follow last season. As Matt wrote, Montgomery gave up a lot of line drives last season in spite of excellent quality of contact metrics. Even soft line drives tend to dunk in for base hits quite a bit, so if Monty can find a way to turn those into grounders or higher launch angle fly balls, he could really take a step forward.

Now, to PECOTA‘s projections, which are quite good. Don’t let the innings totals dismay you. While part of that relates to some of these pitchers’ health histories, returning to a full workload after a pandemic-shortened season has to be accounted for too. Frankly, this is a terrific front four. And even if PECOTA isn’t your cup of tea, the FanGraphs’ ZiPS/Steamer blended Depth Charts peg the Yanks’ rotation as tops in the American League and third-best in MLB. But for now, here’s PECOTA:

NameIPERADRAWARP
Cole193.22.683.255.5
Kluber138.13.634.222.4
Taillon103.03.474.101.9
Montgomery115.23.784.481.7

The fifth spot’s up for grabs

We’re planning to write about the fifth starter competition in more detail soon, but I’ll touch on the team’s options here. Keep in mind that the Yankees won’t need a fifth starter all that much in April, so the team could get creative. Whether that means the use of openers, piggy-back starters, or just straight up bullpen games — who knows. In any case, there’s really good depth here talent-wise.

Right now, it seems like the Yankees’ organization is doing everything it can to position Domingo Germán as the team’s fifth starter. To put it lightly, his return from last year’s domestic violence suspension has been a nightmare. Teammates are (or were) reportedly icing him out, Zack Britton and Luke Voit didn’t mince words in the press, and more details about the allegations have come to light in recent weeks. It’s quite clear that the team’s management wasn’t prepared for a lot of this. Germán has since read a pre-written apology to the media and privately offered a mea culpa to his teammates. On the mound, Germán was mostly good in 2019 although he had a propensity to give up homers. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled with a repeat performance in 2021, but is that really worth the trouble? Apparently so.

21 year-old Deivi García was quite impressive in his six starts last summer. Even if he doesn’t take the fifth starter gig out of camp, he’ll be in the Bronx a good deal this season. There’s no question he’s ready for a full year in the majors, especially after his revised position on the rubber did wonders for him in 2020. Yet, he’s a bit more of a luxury considering two things. One, the Yankees want to monitor his workload. And two, the team has enough depth (are you sick of me saying that already?).

Michael King is on the outside looking in, but is a fifth starter candidate. He got knocked around in the Grapefruit League opener and has yet to find much success at the major league level. His numbers in the minors are great, but he lacks a putaway pitch and struggles after the first time through the order. This is a pretty pivotal year for him, even at the minor league level. Remember, he missed a huge chunk of 2019 due to a stress reaction in his elbow, so it’s been a little while since he mowed down minor league opponents.

Finally, I’m including Nick Nelson here even though I fully expect him to be a reliever at the major league level. If he doesn’t break camp in the big league bullpen, I anticipate him starting for Scranton. After all, Nelson has started 74 of his 76 career minor league outings. It’s not worth giving up on the starting possibility just yet, especially given that the team’s bullpen is already loaded.

Here are PECOTA’s projections for these four in 2021:

NameIPERADRAWARP
Germán95.03.974.511.3
García115.24.184.671.4
King65.23.964.610.7
Nelson44.04.855.200.1

Notable NRIs

Jhoulys Chacín is arguably a fifth starter candidate too, but given the Yankees’ plentiful options already on the 40-man, a few things would have to break Chacín’s way. At the very least, the 33 year-old righty gives the Yankees a decent enough safety net in case a number of injuries pop up this month. It wasn’t that long ago that he was a solid big league starter. In 2018, he made 35 starts for Milwaukee and posted a 3.50 ERA. The year before: 32 starts and a 3.89 ERA for San Diego. Just make sure you ignore what he did in 2019 and 2020.

Including Asher Wojciechowski as a notable non-roster invitee is dubious. I don’t want to be harsh, but he’s been really bad at the big league level. You’re surely familiar with the Yankees teeing off against him in recent seasons with Baltimore. Wojciechowski owns a 5.95 ERA and 5.42 FIP in 198 big league innings, and to be honest, I’m just not sure what the Yankees see in him. There’s no reason for him to pitch a single important inning in the Bronx this season. Mop up? Maybe. But that’s it.

NameIPERADRAWARP
Chacín50.05.175.56-0.1
Wojciechowski50.05.305.57-0.1

Injured, but we’ll see them down the line

The Yankees were never going to finish the 2021 season without a pitching injury. Clarke Schmidt‘s common extensor strain hopefully will be one of just a few health concerns the team faces this year. The good news is that Schmidt’s surgically repaired UCL is in tact, so no second Tommy John surgery is necessary. The bad news is that Schmidt has built up a bit of an injury history with this being the latest setback.

It’s unfortunate how things have changed for Schmidt over a calendar year. At one point last spring, there was a strong case for him to make the team as the fifth starter. Then, the pandemic shut things down. Schmidt eventually got a couple of big league looks, but not enough of a chance to make an impact. Hopefully, this tendon issue is a mere bump in the road and truly only costs him the 3-4 week prognosis.

Expect Schmidt to start the year in Scranton once healthy. He’ll have some catching up to do, especially considering the number of arms surrounding him on the depth chart vying for big league starts, but there’s no question that his stuff is top notch. He just needs an extended opportunity to put it together.

Luis Severino could be the Yankees’ knight in shining armor this summer. His Tommy John surgery rehab is progressing well and he should see the mound for the first time next week. If all goes well, he could emerge as a rotation option in the second half. I know we don’t like when any GM says that an injured player is the team’s deadline acquisition, but to be fair, a healthy Severino is going to be the best possible arm this team can get midseason. It’s just a matter of a) not having any rehab setbacks and b) not needing too much time to shake off any rust.

Here’s what PECOTA has to say about these two:

NameIPERADRAWARP
Schmidt54.14.655.140.3
Severino74.13.323.961.5

The prospects

On the 40-man

Aside from García and Schmidt, there are four other notable prospects on the team’s 40-man. Luis Medina, Luis Gil, Yoendrys Gomez, and Alexander Vizcaino. We may not see all of them in the Bronx this year, but they are pitchers to watch. (As an aside: check out Rohan’s first post, a prospect roundup.)

Medina has the most helium out of anyone here. After toiling with control issues throughout his minor league career, Medina put things together in late-2019. He posted a 1.77 ERA in his last 8 starts and walked just 15 batters in 45.2 frames. Most recently, Medina pitched quite well in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In 16.2 frames, the 21 year-old recorded a 0.54 ERA and had a 32-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Considering that recent workload, he’s more ready for the regular season than most arms in camp right now. I think he starts the year with High-A Hudson Valley, but Double-A Somerset should be in the cards. Maybe even more if he continues to dazzle.

The Yankees got Gil from the Twins in the Jake Cave deal, and the righty has put up big numbers in the lower levels ever since. Equipped with a blazing fastball, Gil topped out in then-affiliated High-A Tampa in 2019. Some more time in A-ball may suffice, but Double-A is very much in the cards for the 22 year-old this year. Developing a good breaking ball will be key to how fast he moves up, as Baseball Prospectus notes.

Gomez, an offseason 40-man addition, is further away than Medina and Gil. He has just 6 starts above rookie ball to his name, so he’s destined for more time in A-ball this year. For what it’s worth, he’s one of FanGraphs’ “picks to click”, meaning that he could break into the worldwide top-100 prospect list.

Vizcaino has worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors, but his quickest path to the Bronx could be in the bullpen. The Yankees liked him enough to bring him to the Alternate Site last summer, before he was on the team’s 40-man. His fastball-changeup combination has a chance to be devastating in late relief if the whole starter thing doesn’t work out. If the Yankees don’t fast track him, Vizcaino could start the year in Hudson Valley’s rotation.

Not on the 40-man

Glen Otto is in big league camp as a non-roster invitee. He was Rule 5 eligible this offseason but no team took a chance on the 6-foot-3 righty. He pitched well in 14 games (12 starts) in High-A Tampa in 2019 and figures to open in the Double-A rotation this season. Triple-A is likely the endgame for the almost 25 year-old this season, though I wouldn’t rule out the majors entirely.

Southpaw TJ Sikkema, who I profiled after the Yankees took him with the 38th overall pick in 2019, has just 10.2 professional innings to his name, all in Staten Island. He probably needs to get his feet wet again in Low-A, but we could see a lot of him with High-A Hudson Valley before year’s end.

Matt Sauer was the team’s second round choice in 2017, but doesn’t have all that much pro experience because he had Tommy John surgery in April 2019. He had began that year with Single-A Charleston before going under the knife. The 22 year-old is Rule 5 eligible in the offseason, so he’ll need to make his mark this year.

There’s a good chance that 5-foot-11 lefty Jake Agnos ends up as a reliever, but there’s still time for him to work out of the rotation. After the Yankees drafted Agnos in 2019, he got a taste of pro ball in the GCL and New York Penn League. One of the organization’s Single-A affiliates should be his destination this summer.

Ken Waldichuk is yet another early round pitcher from the 2019 draft. He dominated rookie ball opponents in 29.1 innings post-draft, racking up 49 strikeouts and 7 walks. Even after a dormant 2020, he should be more than capable of handling a bump up to Tampa or Hudson Valley.

The Yanks acquired Alfredo Garcia from Colorado mid-2019. The lefty put up strong numbers in short-season A-Ball with both the Rockies and Yankees’ organizations that season. He should see time in Hudson Valley.

The Yankees drafted Beck Way last summer, so he’s yet to pitch professionally. He drew an AJ Burnett body comp from FanGraphs, meaning he’s well built for a starting role (6-foot-3, 190 pounds). Way didn’t face particularly tough competition at the amateur level, going from a Division II school to Junior College, so rookie level looks appropriate for 2021.

There are a number of other prospects who are really far away, such as Osiel Rodriguez. He made his pro debut in 2019, but was shut down for most of the season after displaying diminished fastball velocity. Hopefully the 19 year-old righty is healthy and can regain his mid-to-upper nineties velocity this season.

Minor League Depth

Junkballing lefty Nestor Cortes is back in the organization. The Yanks dealt him to Seattle, where he struggled last season. Nasty Nestor should spend most, if not all, of this season as Triple-A Scranton’s swingman.

Nick Green, who the Yankees initially acquired in the Carlos Beltrán trade, once had some prospect sheen. Arizona took him in the December 2018 Rule 5 draft after the Yankees left him unprotected, but the Diamondbacks returned him in March. Green then had a rough go of it in 2019 (7.08 ERA, albeit a 4.00 FIP in 68.2 Double-A innings). He turns 26 this month and is more of an org guy at this point.

Janson Junk is an 80-grade pitcher name, but the 25 year-old isn’t really a prospect. He spent most of 2019 in High-A Tampa, where he started and relieved. He also made one start a piece in Double-A and Triple-A, but those appear to have been spot starts. The Yankees will probably use him to fill out the rotation or long relief role at whichever level is in need.

Shawn Semple is another 25 year-old who looks like a minor league filler more than anything else. He made a spot start for Scranton in 2019, but spent most of his time in High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton that season.

All things considered, Brian Keller‘s been pretty darn successful for a 39th-round pick (2016). He reached Triple-A in 2019 after he conquered Double-A in 2018 (3.74 ERA in 125.1 innings) and early 2019 (2.32 ERA in 42.2 innings). There’s hardly any upside here, but it would be a fun story to see him make the major at some point. For now, Triple-A will do.

Harold Cortijo is still just 22 and has fared well at every level he’s served, but the 2017 14th-rounder still has a ways to go. He spent all of 2019 in Charleston with middling strikeout (18.3 percent) and walk (9.6 percent) rates. He’ll probably plug a hole in the back of Hudson Valley or Somerset’s rotation.

Finally, some quick tidbits on others: Nolan Martinez is still just 22, but the 2016 third-rounder hasn’t found much success in the minors yet. Daniel Bies stands at 6-foot-9 but lacks big velocity. Jio Orozco spent three seasons in Charleston before finally getting a bump up to Tampa in 2019. Josh Maciejewski is a 25 year-old lefty who the Yankees took in the 10th round in 2018, but has already seen time in the upper minors.

Depth Chart

  • MLB: Cole, Kluber, Taillon, Montgomery, and one of Germán, García, King, or Nelson
  • IL: Severino, Schmidt
  • Triple-A: Chacin, Wojciechowski, Cortes, Keller, MLB fifth starter runners up
  • Double-A: Green, Junk, Semple, Otto, Maciejewski, Vizcaino
  • High-A: Medina, Gil, Bies, Cortijo, Garcia, Martinez
  • Low-A: Gomez, Sauer, Sikkema, Agnos, Waldichuk
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2 Comments

  1. Cary Green

    What about Mr. 100 mph with 4 plus pitches, poor control & out of Options? (Albert Abreu). I’m assuming the Yankees view him strictly as a reliever at this point? On the telecast yesterday Michael Kay was babbling on about Abreu potentially being trade bait. Seems like it would be a shame to lose an arm like his for nothing. It doesn’t seem like he would pass through waivers.

    • MikeD

      Based on something I read on Mike A’s Patreon blog today which referenced MLBTR, there remains the possibility that Abreu may have a 4th minor league option. It seems to be related to a pending ruling for several minor leaguers related to service time because of the shortened 2020 season. Hard to say how the arbitrator will rule, but there remains a possibility he may have one more optionable year. We should know soon.

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