Of all the questions the Yankees have going into the 2016 season, perhaps the most revolved around the starting pitchers. Can Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda actually go the entire season without breaking down? Will Ivan Nova and Nathan Eovaldi bounce back from surgery and injury? Will we ever see the old CC Sabathia again? If the answer to any of the above questions is “no”, then who steps into the rotation? Do we have another Luis Severino waiting for his chance? Certainly, the rotation is in a state of flux, and if the 2016 campaign were to begin today, what would we see?
More than likely, the rotation will be
- Masahiro Tanaka – The pitcher and the Yankees walk a high-wire every time he steps on the mound. During his first season with the club (2014), it was discovered that he had a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament – something pitchers usually undergo Tommy John surgery to fix. Instead of having the surgery, the 27-year-old elected to use rest and off-season strength programs to rehabilitate. His numbers in 2015 were good, but not as stellar as his All-Star rookie season. Even though his WHIP (walks+hits per inning pitched) dropped from an already sparkling 1.06 in 2014 to 0.994 last year, and his innings increased to 154 (from 136 in 2014), his ERA jumped to 3.51. Even more troubling – especially for a right-handed pitcher in Yankee Stadium – is the fact that he allowed 25 home runs. That is an increase of 10 over the previous season. Each time his turn in the rotation comes up, Yankee fans hold their collective breath hoping that they aren’t witnessing his last start for a couple of years. As it is, our “ace” did have off-season elbow surgery to remove a bone spur that the Yankees knew was there when they signed him, and he did not pitch from April till June of 2015 because of a strained forearm and tendinitis in his wrist. Hopefully all aren’t signs of bad things to come.
- Luis Severino – Quite possibly the brightest light of the Yankees season was the performance of rookie Luis Severino. From the moment he was called upon in August, he injected a much-needed energy and stability into the rotation. In his 11 starts, he demonstrated “ace” qualities. He posted a 2.89 ERA and struck out 56 (while walking just 22). If not for one disastrous start against Toronto (2 1/3 innings pitched, 6 earned runs), Severino’s season stats would have been: 2.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP – numbers any front of the rotation pitcher would be proud of. At just 21-years-old, the baby Bomber is our future anchor of the staff. In addition to his numbers, Severino shows a composure on and off the field that is beyond his years. He doesn’t get rattled, and bounces back from adversity. Following that horrendous outing against the Blue Jays, the young right-hander finished the season going 2 – 0 with a 2.19 ERA over four starts. He didn’t let one disaster steam roll his season. Mark my words, this is one Yankees pitcher who will be in the CY Young discussion for years to come.
- Michael Pineda – The big right-hander began 2015 on fire, and through June 1st held a 7 -2 record with a 3.33 ERA. At that point he had tossed over 70 innings and struck out 76, yielding just SEVEN walks. Yeah, he was a name in CY Young discussions. The highlight during that time was a seven inning, 16 strikeout (no walks) performance against division rival Baltimore on May 10th. Unfortunately, that would mark the peak of his 2015 campaign. By the end of July, Pineda found himself on the DL with a strained forearm and sporting a 9 – 7 record and 3.97 ERA. What had begun with such promise had turned sour. The pitcher missed virtually all of August (one start on the 26th) and would not throw more than 6 innings in any game following his return. He finished 2015 with a 12 – 10 record and an ERA over 4 (4.37). Like Tanaka, his HR total was distressing – coughing up 21 dingers to opponents, including 8 over his last 8 starts. Which Michael Pineda the Yankees will see in 2016 is anyone’s guess. He is still young – he’ll be 27 next week – and brings a high ceiling. His fastball averages 93 mph and he has a devastating splitter. Even more impressive is his control, and he posted a 156 – 21 strikeout to walk ratio. Young players are going to be inconsistent, and I am holding out hope that as Pineda matures, the consistency will come and we’ll have a third “ace” on the staff.
- Nathan Eovaldi – Like the three starters in front of him, Nathan Eovaldi is young (he’ll be 26 when the season begins) and had a very inconsistent season. At times he was untouchable, other times he seemingly couldn’t get out of his own way. To show just how erratic Eovaldi’s year was, one only need look at the numbers. In 10 starts where he pitched six or more innings, his ERA was 2.47 with a sparkling 1.087 WHIP. In the other 17 starts he made during 2015, his ERA was 5.88 with a 2.06 WHIP. It was quite the Jekyll and Hyde season for him. Ah the inconsistency of youth! Regardless, Eovaldi has a lively arm and sports a 100+ mph fastball. Like Pineda, he also can fashion an above average splitter. Also like Pineda, the righty fireballer is coming off an injury. Last year his season was cut short by some difficulties in his elbow. Reportedly, those are behind him (he was actually available out of the bullpen for the Wildcard game) and he should start 2016 healthy. With a year in pinstripes under his belt, Nathan Eovaldi will only continue to grow as a Yankee and should become a mainstay in our rotation for years to come.
- CC Sabathia / Ivan Nova – Ivan Nova is coming off an abbreviated 2015 campaign as he returned from having Tommy John surgery. Rumors persist this offseason that the Yankees are trying to deal the 29-year-old right hander. It seems clear that GM Brian Cashman would like to clear this spot in the rotation for CC Sabathia and no longer feels that Nova can outperform his left-handed veteran counterpart. In 17 starts following his return, Nova struggled to a 5.07 ERA. In 11 of those games, he allowed 3 or more runs, and only once (his first start) did he not allow any runs. As the year progressed, his ERA rose; going from a 1.50 in June, to a 4.57 in July, to a 5.68 in August, and finishing with a 6.37 ERA in September. Given that kind of performance, is it any wonder that Sabathia would be the one most likely to occupy this position in the rotation? The big, 35-year-old left-hander is a far cry from what he once was. In 2015, he did improve his ERA to 4.73 (down from 5.28 the year before), but he has had to redefine himself as a pitcher. He can no longer dominate hitters with his fastball as its velocity has gone the way of rotary dial phones. Instead, Sabathia must depend on pinpoint location of breaking pitches to put hitters away, and honestly, it hasn’t come easy for him. CC did make 29 starts for the Bombers in 2015, and in 17 of those he managed to go at least six innings. Unfortunately, no longer being able to blow hitters away means no longer being able to keep few balls in the park. Last season, Sabathia gave up 28 long balls; the second time in 3 years that he has done so. In spite of it, he is signed to his large contract until 2017, and current Yankees management has shown that contracts take precedence over performance. Look for Sabathia to hold down the 5-hole among the starters until injury, or he himself decides otherwise.
What should the rotation be?
My biggest beef with what will probably be our rotation is actually at the bottom of the starting staff. It is often said that pitchers coming off TJ surgery – like Nova is – take at least half a season to get back to the performance level where they left. The rumors flying around suggest that the Yankees – Brian Cashman in particular – aren’t willing to see if that will be the case with Nova. In 2013, prior to his arm troubles, the pitcher had arguably his best season, posting a career-best 3.10 ERA and 1.285 WHIP. We should not have expected much from him during his short return in 2015, and should give him a full shot at winning a spot in our rotation in 2016. Instead, all indications are that Sabathia – coming off his much documented offseason issues – is the fifth guy in the rotation, simply because he is under that large contract and we don’t want money like that riding the pine.
Look, I’m a huge CC fan. What he gave us from 2009 through 2012 is unequaled, and he should go down as one of our greatest southpaws, but face it folks, the big guy is closing in on the end of his great career and really is giving us very little value occupying a spot among the starting five. I say let’s see what Nova can do as he gets farther away from his surgery. History suggests that he may still have some good years ahead of him.
We welcome your opinions and look forward to reading your comments.
BYB Senior Writer
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