Previewing the 2017 Yankees season, beginning with expectations for the pitching staff...
Every single spot in the Yankees' rotation comes with at least a small amount of uncertainty.
Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka has pitched quite well since joining the team, yet he throws with a ticking time bomb in the form of a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. However, Tanaka demonstrated last season that his elbow does not hinder his performance and he looked exceptional during spring training. In what could be a walk year -- Tanaka has an opt-out in his contract at the end of this season -- the 28-year-old could turn in his finest season in pinstripes.
CC Sabathia is determined to pitch beyond this season, but most likely this will be his last season in New York. Sabathia had success in 2016, finally accepting his need to transform the way he pitches. Sabathia, 36, is no longer the bull of the rotation, but the Yankees will be counting on him to make 30 or more starts -- something that could be difficult considering the left-hander's balky right knee. Beyond the health concerns, Sabathia could be the type of pitcher in 2017 who looks good one start and lousy the next.
Michael Pineda will be a free agent at the end of this season and the Yankees would like nothing more than for the big righty to take advantage of it with a fine season. Pineda is the enigma of the group, looking invincible and terrible game-to-game and even inning-to-inning. Pineda led all American League starting pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings in 2016, yet he had difficulty shutting down teams when his back was against the wall. The 27-year-old, sits squarely in his prime, but this season will tell a lot about how the remainder of his career will unfold.
Luis Severino, 23, did just enough this spring to show the Yankees he deserved a chance to run with a full time role as a starter. It is important that the Yankees allow Severino a very long leash as he works through becoming a better major league pitcher. He has been working on his changeup and must become comfortable using it when appropriate. If he can do that, Severino could become a mainstay in the Yankees rotation for years to come.
The last spot of the rotation will not be settled until the team needs a fifth starter on April 16. A spring training competition began with five pitchers -- Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Severino and Adam Warren. Within the last two weeks, Jordan Montgomery added his name to the list, while Warren and Mitchell were eliminated and head to the bullpen.
Cessa and Montgomery will pitch in the Triple-A rotation to start the season, while Green is heading to Double-A simply so he can get starts on the same days as Montgomery. Each pitcher will be evaluated further before making a final decision.
Whereas the rotation is filled with question marks, the bullpen should be more settled and consistent, especially at the tail end. With Tyler Clippard, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman set to pitch the back end of games, the Yankees should be able to convert many late-inning leads into wins.
Clippard, who was fantastic after he came over from Arizona at the trade deadline last season, will predominately take control of the seventh inning. Clippard, 32, has experience as a closer as well, in case both Betances and Chapman are not available.
Betances will settle back into the eighth-inning slot, a role he seems most comfortable handling. After a contentious arbitration battle with the Yankees, it will be interesting to see if the 29-year-old will pitch with a chip on his shoulder this season.
Chapman, 29, returns to New York to control closing duties with his overpowering fastball in tow. His fastball makes the news, but he will have to continue to master his offspeed offerings so that when his fastball command is off, he has other pitches to resort to.
While the back end of the bullpen is important to the overall success of the club, the middle relievers might be even more crucial.
Warren, 29, and Mitchell, 25, will be especially important relievers for the Yankees. The team will rely on them a good deal this season considering the iffiness of the rotation's ability to pitch deep into games. Both pitchers can retire batters from both sides of the plate and their repertoire plays quite well in relief stints.
Tommy Layne will likely be the specialty reliever against tough left-handed hitters when the club has the lead. Layne, 32, had a good spring and did nice work for the Yankees after being signed off waivers last summer.
Jonathan Holder, 23, was fantastic across three minor league levels in 2016 and received a taste of the big leagues last September. He pitched well this spring, beating out Ben Heller for the last righty spot in the bullpen.
Finally, Chasen Shreve gives Yankees manager Joe Girardi another matchup lefty. Shreve, 26, has had success with the club, but he also took a step back last season. So his time in the bullpen could be short-lived with poor performances.
The good news about the middle relievers is that each of them has the ability to provide appearances longer than one inning. That allows the Yankees to use Clippard, Betances, and Chapman in strict one-inning appearances most often.
A final bit of good news for the bullpen is that if someone falters, the Yankees have a multitude of good arms, beginning with Heller, that they can turn to.
The Yankees pitching staff has some upside type pitchers in the rotation, while the bullpen is built around a much stronger foundation. The questions in the rotation might very well be balanced by the expected performance of the bullpen.
This season, Girardi and GM Brian Cashman will be tested in many ways. How long of a rope will they give Severino? Will they be patient with the No. 5 starter? If Sabathia cannot perform like last season, will he be relegated to the bullpen or simply cast away like Alex Rodriguez? Will the Yankees make adjustments to the rotation if a minor leaguer is shining in Triple-A? How frequently will the team use the Triple-A relief shuttle?
In a perfect world, the Yankees will see Tanaka pitch to the same level as last season and at least two other starters will emerge as true No. 2 and No. 3 hurlers. Combine that possibility with what will potentially be one of the best bullpens in the game and the Yankees could surprise some detractors with a postseason berth.
Coming tomorrow: A preview of the Yankees' offense and a prediction on the club's 2017 finish.