The Yankees' clear intention this offseason was to head into the 2018 season with six MLB starting pitchers. They have almost reached the goal.
The Yankees have all five of their starters that finished the 2017 season under contract after inking CC Sabathia to a one-year, $10 million contract on Saturday. Despite internal depth behind the current five arms, the Yankees remain active in the trade market for a front end starter.
The Yankees are not going to institute a strict six-man rotation, so why the need for another MLB starter?
Let me first clarify that I remain optimistic about the Yankees rotation. This is not about bashing the process, but rather to bring to light the reasoning to trade for another starter goes beyond simple depth. In my opinion, the Yankees have legitimate questions about each of the current rotation members, which could lead to potentially detrimental results. While the Yanks have one of the better groupings in the league, it does not mean issues won't arise.
Success in 2018 will be heavily reliant on Luis Severino, who will be pitching in his age-24 season. The right-hander put to rest whether he was a reliever or a starter with an incredible 2017 season, which saw him place third in the American League Cy Young award balloting.
Despite all the positive vibes Severino created in 2017, there are two concerns surrounding him. First, will he experience a backspin in performance? While it is not an expectation, it would not be the first time that a young pitcher back-peddled after his first full MLB season.
Second, will the number of innings pitched in 2017 (209 1/3 including the postseason, 58 more than in 2016) affect his ability to remain productive in 2018? As a young pitcher, there is historical evidence which portends to a decline the year after a substantial increase in innings pitched.
Masahiro Tanaka entered the 2017 season seeking to capitalize on his chance to opt-out of his seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees. Surprisingly, Tanaka ran into his first extended run of ineffectiveness since coming to New York in 2014. Tanaka opened the first half of the season tossing 102 innings to the tune of an atrocious 5.47 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, and a whopping 23 home runs allowed.
Tanaka was able to turn things around with a better second half (3.77 ERA), and was fantastic in the postseason (two earned runs in 20 innings). Tanaka's biggest question mark had been the partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and that will never go away. Now, the Yankees must be concerned that their former ace, could be more of a middle rotation arm in 2018.
When the Yankees traded for Sonny Gray, they believed he was going to bolster their rotation for the stretch run, but there was also faith that he could assist the team's trajectory for the next two seasons. Gray delivered early on (2.66 ERA in first 50 2/3 innings across eight starts), but was let down by an otherwise potent offense. As the Yankees inched toward their postseason berth, he fell off and it bled into the postseason's division series. Gray was able to buckle down to deliver a solid start in the American League Championship Series, but the questions remain.
Gray's issues seem to be about his confidence in his ability and stuff. he has incredible movement on his sinker and off-speed offerings, plus he can dial up a 95 mph four-seam fastball. However, Gray often demonstrated that he does not trust his stuff and nibbles around the plate. Once Gray's confidence dwindles, so too does his effectiveness. Add in the fact that he has battled injuries throughout his career (he has not eclipsed 200 innings since 2015) and Yankees may be anxious about the potential for missed time.
Sabathia's rejuvenation goes back to the last eight starts of the 2016 season (2.37 ERA in 49 1/3 innings). Once he accepted the transitional phase from power to finesse pitcher and trusted a brace for his balky knee, the positive results came to fruition. Sabathia is no longer the workhorse he was, averaging 5.5 innings per start in 2017, but he did manage to lift the Yankees throughout the season, especially after the club lost its previous game.
Besides the chance his knee gives out for good, Sabathia has a ton of miles on his left arm and shoulder (over 3,400 MLB innings, including the postseason). Going into his 18th season in the majors, health has to be considered a question mark for Sabathia.
Finally, there is no arguing that Jordan Montgomery was a pleasant surprise in 2017. He pitched himself into the rotation in spring training, eventually making 29 starts for the Yanks. Montgomery was, at one point of the season, the club's most consistent starter.
Montgomery is not overpowering, his control can be a question (3.0 BB/9), and he gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings pitched. But he managed to keep the Yankees in many of the games he started. Similarly to Sabathia, Montgomery did not go long in his starts (5.35 innings per start), and he did suffer a decline in the second half.
Therefore, the question of whether Montgomery can make a leap in 2018 is valid. The other debate with him is whether he is viewed as a long term rotation solution with a number of highly touted hurlers ready to knock on the major league door.
If we asked the Yankees braintrust if they are confident in their current rotation, they would likely respond positively. However, the desire to add a sixth MLB caliber starter, one who could slot in the middle of the group, does point to a certain bit of trepidation in the group itself and those presumed to be next in line.