Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
St. Petersburg, Fla. -- From the front office down to manager Aaron Boone, the Yankees have been loath in recent weeks to discuss specifics of their playoff pitching plans.
But with internal discussions intensifying and the regular season drawing to a close, the team is finally beginning to tip its thought process. There's no way to audition pitchers for new roles without showing the public, and the Yanks need to peek at CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ during this two-game series at Tropicana Field.
First off, don't count on the Yankees abandoning the concept of starting pitching altogether, as has been speculated. James Paxton, Luis Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka are lined up for this weekend in Texas, and they're a good guess to be the first three starters of a division series, too.
Boone will use his bullpen more aggressively than in the regular season, but will likely not go so far as piggybacking. This became clear when he announced his plans for how he will deploy Sabathia and Happ over the next two days. Neither is prepping for a straight piggybacking role.
Pitching after an opener is often confused with piggybacking, but those roles are not the same.
Domingo German might have been a fit for a piggyback role, following a starter after three or four innings, but he will soon be officially lost to a domestic violence suspension.
The Yankees are interested in Sabathia for a variety of situations -- perhaps for an inning or two at a time, but perhaps to face a tough lefty batter in a high-leverage spot. On Tuesday, in his first relief outing after 590 regular season starts across 19 years, Sabathia impressed Yankee brass, and anyone else who might have been watching.
Sporting a sharp cutter and slider, Sabathia retired the heart of the Rays' lineup in order, striking out two in a perfect inning. What remains unknown is how his arm and body will feel the day after a relief outing, and how much rest he will require between appearances. That's for Boone to find out over the next several days. The manager plans to repeat the experiment this weekend in Texas.
Boone's planned use of Happ on Wednesday will be with the idea of preparing him for a different role than Sabathia's. Happ will follow an opener -- in this case, Jonathan Loaisiga -- which will set him up to do the same in a potential ALDS Game 4.
That would allow Happ to enter a playoff game against the bottom third of an opponent's lineup, and pitch until it's time for, say, Adam Ottavino to get a few big outs in the fifth or sixth.
The Yankees have conditioned Chad Green to open games by pitching two innings against the best of the opponents' offense. In the regular season, Luis Cessa or Nestor Cortes Jr. have often followed. The team views Happ as an October upgrade over those pitchers.
Of course, the above scenarios represent ideal game scripts. The playoffs can get sideways quickly, if Green gets smacked around in the first inning, or Paxton, Severino or Tanaka has a short start that taxes the bullpen more than expected.
An aggressive bullpen strategy allows a team to use its best pitchers in the situations best suited to them, but it can also leave open the risk of tiring out relievers and leaving a staff thin. But these are the innovations that the Yankees are pursuing, with all the risks and rewards involved.