The last time the New York Yankees received a bona fide ace-like performance from one of their rotation members it would likely be CC Sabathia's 2011 season in which he went 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA and 230 strikeouts across 237 1/3 innings of work. The club has received quality starting pitching performances over the last few seasons, but no one has taken the role as ace and run away with it.
Will someone from the 2016 rotation step up and claim the ace role? First, let's briefly describe what we mean by ace. The ace is the pitcher who tames the opposition virtually every time he steps on the mound. He dominates often, works a ton of innings and basically controls the outcome of games all by himself.
We'll take the expected starters one by one in alphabetical order and explain why they might, and might not assume the role of ace in 2016.
Eovaldi, who turns 26 this month, came to New York last season with lots of questions; mainly how does a guy who throws close to 100 mph fail to strike out a ton of guys? Eovaldi worked diligently with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and began to work on his ancillary pitches. By midseason Eovaldi started to get it and he cruised through the summer becoming the performance leader of the rotation.
Eovaldi finished the season 14-3 with a 4.20 ERA (3.42 FIP). His 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched were the highest of his career. That's not a superior number, but it was a good first step for Eovaldi.
He seemed to grow as a pitcher as the year wore on and grew confident with each start. If Eovaldi continues to build on his success in 2015, he certainly has a shot of being the club's ace in 2016.
Eovaldi still needs to go deeper in games, work on limiting the number of hits he allows (10.2 H/9) and cut down on his walk rate (2.9 BB/9). But, the biggest thing holding Eovaldi back, might be the elbow issue that plagued him at the end of last season. If the injury turns into something more and Eovaldi loses zip on his fastball or the necessary spin on his splitter, he could find himself back to being a middling pitcher.
If Pineda is going to finally turn the corner, this would have to be the season. Pineda can look dominant at times and for extended periods, but it's met with downturns, something that does not happen with aces.
In 2015, Pineda did do one thing well and that's make 27 starts, the most since his rookie campaign. Pineda, 27, went 12-10 with a 4.37 ERA (3.34 FIP) with 156 strikeouts in 160 2/3 innings. Pineda continued to master the strikezone by limiting walks to a fantastic 1.2 BB/9.
Pineda might never be a workhorse type, but he has the talent to move into elite status. The problem here is he's had that same label since he burst on the scene in 2011, and nothing has really changed. Will 2016 be different?
Most of you will see this name and giggle, but the fact that Sabathia has the ability to lead the team in starts and innings pitched despite his recent struggles says something to me - he has something in the tank.
Sabathia's knee issues have been problematic for some time now, and have truly dampened his performance. Before being fitted for a knee brace toward the end of last season Sabathia was pitching much like the man who seemed to be deteriorating before our eyes - 24 GS, 138 1/3 IP, 5.27 ERA and 26 HR allowed.
After pitching with the knee brace Sabathia began to show signs of being able to compete at the level the Yankees needed - 5 GS, 29 IP, 2.17 ERA and 2 HR. It is a small sample size for sure, but it coincided with an actual change to Sabathia's physical constraints, so it should not be taken too lightly.
Sabathia is no longer a shoe-in for 30 starts and 200+ innings, but he remains the most likely candidate to reach those figures based solely on his willingness to battle on the mound. That says a lot about Sabathia's makeup, and while I do not figure he'll regain ace status, I do believe he can provide the club with moderate production in 2016.
There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Severino's chances of taking over ace status of the club. He's discussed at length of wanting to grab the moniker, and having the confidence to prove he deserves it.
Severino no doubt has the talent to be an ace as he has shown great progress in his short professional career. Severino began last season in Double-A and shot through the rest of the Yankees' system. Once he took to the mound as a major league player, he didn't lose a step.
Severino showed great poise in his 62.1 innings with the Yankees. His numbers were as good as any of the other starters during the period of time - 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP), 8.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. Severino does need to work on the walks and his home run rate (1.3 HR/9) needs to come down.
Here's the rub with Severino; he turns 22 later this month and expecting him to be the ace might not be fair. I admire his desire and love the self-assurance he exudes, but let's see him pitch a full season in the big leagues before we hand over the title of ace.
Tanaka has a lot going for him. He's still young (27), he has unquestioned ability, possesses a sound work ethic and he's a polished pitcher. He's also a ticking time bomb.
It terrible to have to continually bring up the fact that Tanaka is pitching with a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. But, the possibility of a full tear and subsequent Tommy John surgery is a reality and it limits many from projecting Tanaka to dominate on the mound for a full season.
In my view, so long as Tanaka pitches with the partial tear, he's bound to find himself on the disabled list at least once each season for four to six weeks similarly to what he encountered in 2015. Despite this, Tanaka also has the best chance in my opinion to be the pitcher who makes the most of his 25 starts and 160 or so innings.
His performance in two seasons in New York shows he belongs at the top of a rotation. In 44 MLB starts (290 1/3 innings) Tanaka owns a 25-12 record with a 3.16 ERA (3.54 FIP). His strikeout rate (8.7 K/9) is solid and his walk rate is almost as good as Pineda's (1.5 BB/9). Tanaka allows too many homers but tends to limit them to solo shots thus not disrupting his bottom line too much.
All of that said, the chances Tanaka can make 30 or more starts and eclipse 200 innings are minimal. As I mentioned early on, the ace needs to be on the mound the entire season and it's hard to see that with Tanaka.
Unfortunately, looking through the rotation as it stands right now, there isn't a single member that portrays the image of staff ace. Each pitcher has at least one strike against him which precludes me from claiming one has a great chance to achieve the status. The Yankees might need to wade through another season without someone taking the rubber every five days and pitching to the status of an ace on a consistent basis.
That's not to say the Yankees cannot be successful in 2016 with five average to above-average performances this season - they can. But, I wouldn't expect a singular dominant season from a starting pitcher, but simply various spurts of supremacy from each of the members and that might be enough to remain in contention this season.