An Early Look at the Back of the Rotation

Before I begin my first post, I just wanted to give a shout out to the crew here at IIATMS - it's a pleasure to join the community here, and I'm looking forward to interacting with everyone.  A little about me: I graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 with a Bachelor's Degree in History and as the Sports Director at 91.1 FM WRMC...so, of course I have a career in pharmaceuticals. Baseball has been an obsession for me for as long as I have conscious memories - and I've been an unabashed Yankee fan for the entirety of my life. I've spent, and continue to spend, more time on a baseball diamond than I can count. I love analyzing baseball statistics both new and old. Additionally, I love writing about in-game observations about the mechanics of the game - I am a misplaced baseball rat who loves scouting and analyzing player mechanics.  So with that, read on for the point of the post!

With just over a month remaining until pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Tampa, Brian Cashman has stated that he is 99% sure that he is done acquiring starting pitching that can factor into the 2017 starting rotation.  For now, let’s take Cashman at his word despite the fact that there are numerous reclamation projects available on the free agent market and a blockbuster lurking for anyone who has the prospects to meet the Chicago White Sox asking price for Jose Quintana.  The first three spots in the rotation are relatively clear.  Masahiro Tanaka is the unquestioned ace of the staff, a pitcher who has possibly become underrated in recent years as he continues to be reliable and often brilliant.  CC Sabathia had a bounce-back 2016 campaign, and while he is not the ace of yesteryear, the Yankees hope that he can continue his resurgence and be a steadying force in the middle of the rotation.  The enigmatic Michael Pineda continues to tease with ace-caliber stuff that has yet to translate into anything more than mediocre performance.  Barring any roster developments that lead to any of the aforementioned pitchers departing the roster, all three are guaranteed rotation spots.

The final two spots in the Yankee rotation will be the most intriguing competition in Spring Training this year as there are no less than 5 candidates for those spots.  While some may argue that Dietrich Enns, Chance Adams, or Jordan Montgomery could sneak into the 5th spot of the rotation with a strong Spring, they are certainly further down the depth chart than the other five, and all can probably use further seasoning in AAA.  In no particular order, the following pitchers will all get a shot to earn a spot in the rotation: Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, and Adam Warren.  The below statistics give a snapshot of each of the competitor’s performance last year with the Yankees.

*Statistics are all as Yankees; stats with other teams not included

Chad Green showed flashes of competence as a starter last season, and generally surprised Yankee fans with his, at times, overpowering stuff, which featured a 92-96 MPH fastball with life and a sharp slider.  I think it’s safe to say that while Green was not on the radars of many Yankee fans at this time last year, there are many fans who want to see what Green can do with more starts, though his performance last season does give reason for pause.  As you can see in the above statistics, Green was very hittable, giving up 9.7 H/9 and 2.4 HR/9, while also allowing walks right at the league average ratio.  These numbers explain why he over-performed his FIP by more than half a run.  That said, it’s easy to dream on Green as he posted the highest K-rate of any Yankee starter not named Michael Pineda.  As with so many pitchers, Green’s Achilles Heel is his lack of a usable third pitch, which can also help explain his overall inability to prevent baserunners.  Green tinkered with a cutter after a demotion to AAA, but before he had a chance to really show it, Green went down with a season-ending elbow injury.  By all reports, he is healthy and was able to go through his normal offseason routine.  If Green can find another pitch to help him turn lineups over more than once, he has enough to be a solid starter.  If not, he will likely be destined to pitch out of the bullpen.

Luis Cessa also showed flashes of being a capable starting pitcher last season.  In a vacuum, Cessa probably showed the best potential to start last year, pairing an excellent walk rate with an average hit rate and a below-average, but playable strikeout rate.  Cessa outperformed his FIP by more than a full run (!) primarily due to an astronomically high HR rate.  Cessa will not be able to match his ERA performance over the course of a full season pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of the AL East if there is not some regression of his HR rate this year.  There is a lot to like about Cessa, though.  He only began pitching as a 19 year old in the Mets’ farm system in 2011, so it is possible that there is more development left ahead for Cessa.  Additionally, he sports four solid pitches, which is more than any other pitcher on this list can boast, giving him the ability to pitch deeper into games.  If Cessa can continue to develop his repertoire and limit the long-ball, he has the potential to be a steady inning-eater in the back of the rotation.

Yankee fans probably don’t want to read a recap of Luis Severino’s 2016, as he woefully underperformed most fan’s expectations.  While many fans and writers have expressed the opinion that Severino should begin a transition to a full-time reliever, the Yankees plan to give him another shot to earn a rotation spot in 2017.  As awful as Severino was a starter last season, he was still able to strike out hitters at an above average rate.  Also, he is only a year removed from an excellent 2015 that saw him fly through the minor leagues and make 11 mostly excellent starts in the big leagues.  There is little argument that Severino has a higher ceiling than any other starter listed here.  He is equipped with a mid-high 90’s fastball and a plus slider.  Severino’s command is currently well below-average as he often left pitches over the heart of the plate, missing his catcher’s target by more than a foot in some cases.  Most distressing however, was the disappearance of Severino’s trust, use, and effectiveness of his changeup, a pitch that was lauded by hordes of scouts as his best pitch as recently as the beginning of 2015.  Changes in the velocity and shape of the pitch were apparent to the human eye last year, namely a jump in velocity.  Watching Severino at the Futures game in July 2014, Severino operated with a changeup that sat at 80-82 MPH with late life, and he used it as his primary off-speed pitch.  Last year, Severino’s changeup sat in the high 80’s and it would largely disappear from his arsenal most outings.  The key to unlocking Severino’s potential as a starter lies in not just his ability to develop command, but to rediscover the changeup that made him one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.  If he can accomplish that, Severino will be a mainstay in the rotation not just in 2017, but for years to come.

Bryan Mitchell was a forgotten man for much of 2016, as he missed most of the year with a fluke foot injury sustained during Spring Training.  Mitchell was poised to make an impact, as Brian Cashman confirmed that Mitchell was set to make the team as a reliever out of Spring Training.  Instead of spending the year with the Yankees, Mitchell spent most of the year rehabbing, making 5 cameo starts for the Yanks in September.  While Mitchell sported an excellent ERA in those starts, his ERA belies some troubling underlying stats, namely that Mitchell walked more batters than he struck out.  Both rates are well-below Major League averages, and are the primary culprits for Mitchell’s FIP being almost a full run higher than his ERA.  Mitchell has been a well-regarded prospect in the Yankee system for years, and has previous success at the big league level, but he is also plagued by the lack of a usable third pitch, relying on his fastball and slider.

Lastly, Adam Warren finds himself in the familiar position of heading to Yankee Spring Training stretched out as a starter, while likely being ticketed for the bullpen.  The statistics he compiled with the Yankees last year were entirely out of the bullpen, after a sub-par performance both in the rotation and in the bullpen for the Chicago Cubs.  Warren is a known entity to the Yankees, and has performed admirably as a swingman in the past for the Yanks.  As a starter, he can show hitters four pitches, though he primarily uses his fastball, slider, and changeup, with the curveball being used sparingly as a “show-me” pitch in recent years.  While the veteran has proven versatile, his best role may be as a stabilizing force in middle relief and as a safety net should some of the Yankees young starters falter or get hurt.

The Yankees have no shortage of imperfect options to fill out the remaining 2/5 of their rotation as they prepare for Spring Training.  I’m sure the Yankees are hoping one of those spots will be filled by Luis Severino, and I wholeheartedly agree – no other potential starter on the 40-man roster has Severino’s upside, and if it all clicks for him, the Yankees could be considerably better than projected.  I personally prefer Warren in the bullpen as he’s proven comfortable in that role, and Joe Girardi tends to rely on his inner circle of trusted pitchers at the expense of some younger relief arms.  Given the choice between Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green, I would lean towards beginning the year with Cessa as the 5th starter.  Both Mitchell and Green’s high octane fastball and slider combination could be highly useful in a thin bullpen behind Chapman and Betances, and they could conceivably remain somewhat stretched out so that they can piggyback off of any of the starters in the event of a short outing, as their stuff plays up in shorter 1-3 inning outings.

In reality, all of these starters will probably see some time in the starting rotation this year due to injury or underperformance.  While each pitcher have some significant hurdles to overcome, it is relatively easy to see a path for Major League success for each this season.  I’m inclined to believe that the outlook for the back of the Yankee rotation is not quite as dire as some of the projections would lead you to believe.